[This first appeared at LifeChurchNC.com]
November 22, 2016
Understanding Church Discipline
Church discipline is a necessary mark of a healthy church and shall be applied in cases of blatant and disruptive sin among professing believers and members of the Life Church. Examples would include sexual misconduct, infidelity, gossip, divisiveness, dissent in essential beliefs, dishonesty, and various other expressions of sin. In accordance with the biblical pattern outlined in Matthew 18:15-17, a professing believer and member of the church who evidences such sin will first be confronted one-on-one, in a manner of truth and love, by a fellow believer and member. If the one-on-one confrontation does not lead to reconciliation, it will then become necessary for pastoral staff and Elders to get involved.
Where the steps of discipline are exhausted in cases of unrepentant and/or habitual sin, the Elders will consider taking certain actions (which may include removing a person from membership) with the hope of eventual reconciliation and restoration. This removal may or may not include a prohibition to attend Church services and events, depending on the circumstances. In addition, it might include public disclosure of removal from membership and the circumstances leading to this decision to the corporate membership of the Church. Those so disciplined will in turn be restored to fellowship when it has been determined by the Elders that appropriate repentance has occurred.
Church Discipline can be further explained as follows:
- Church discipline is the church’s act of confronting someone’s sin and calling them to repent, which, if the person doesn’t repent, will culminate in excluding a professing Christian from membership in the church and participation in the Lord’s Supper because of serious unrepentant sin.
- In a broader sense, discipline is everything the church does to help its members pursue holiness and fight sin. Preaching, teaching, prayer, corporate worship, accountability relationships, and godly oversight by pastors and elders are all forms of discipline.
- There is some distinguishment between these two types of discipline:
Corrective: The New Testament commands and depicts corrective discipline in passages like Matthew 18:15-17, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Corinthians 2:6, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15.
Formative: The New Testament speaks about formative discipline in countless passages about pursuing holiness and building one another up in the faith, such as Ephesians 4:11-32 and Philippians 2:1-18. In fact, we could consider the New Testament epistles as presenting examples of formative discipline, since the apostles wrote the churches to help form them in what to believe and how to live.
Why would we practice Church Discipline?
The Bible portrays discipline as an act of love (Hebrews 12:6-11). Here are several benefits:
- Church discipline calls a professing believer out of sin. For instance, a man in the Corinthian church was having an affair with his father’s wife, and the church approved of it. Paul commanded the church to exclude the man so that the man might repent, be saved, and come back to the church (1 Corinthians 5:5).
- Church discipline warns other Christians about the danger of sin. Paul told Timothy that if a leader sins, he should be rebuked publicly “so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Timothy 5:20).
- Church discipline purifies the church as a whole. Paul writes, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Excommunicating an unrepentant member keeps sin’s destructive influence from spreading and results in a purer, holier, healthier church.
- Church discipline presents non-Christians with a more faithful corporate witness. Would you be surprised to learn that church discipline can be a powerful evangelistic tool? When a whole community lives in a way that’s radically different from the world, people notice and wonder why (Matthew 5:16, John 13:34-35).
- Church discipline promotes the glory of God. Christians should be conspicuously holy, not for our own reputation but for God’s (1 Peter 2:12). As the church increasingly reflects God’s loving and holy character, we put God’s glory on display for all to see. Like a billboard! This is why God made us. (Genesis 1:27, Isaiah 43:6-7, Ephesians 3:10)
The Peacemaking Process
Members of Life Church will be expected to follow the process below, with the support, and when necessary, the involvement of pastoral staff and Elders.
Stage 1—One-on-One Resolution
How to “go to your brother or sister.” (Matthew 18:15a)
- A member will contact the offender to set-up a meeting in hopes of reconciliation.
- The two parties will then meet and attempt to reconcile their relationship following the biblical peacemaking principles.
- Reconciliation achieved.
“If they listen to you, you have won them over.” (Matthew 18:15b)
- In most cases, conflicts are resolved here.
“He/she doesn’t listen”—one-on-one failed. (Matt 18)
- The initiator (member) is encouraged to contact pastoral staff or Elders for conflict counseling between the two parties before meeting, where the initiator will be educated on the biblical peacemaking process.
- Following the meeting, the initiator will be asked to give a follow-up report that the conflict has/hasn’t been resolved.
“Take one or two with you.” (Matthew 18:16)
- The initiator will be asked to submit to an intervention process, led by pastoral staff or the Elders.
- The initiator and the offender are invited to participate in a mediation with a staff member or the Elders.
- The pastoral staff member or Elder(s) will facilitate the mediation, beginning with the laying of ground rules, and will evaluate the conflict while applying the biblical principles of peacemaking
- Reconciliation achieved. Mediation ends with a settlement the two parties initiate and accept. The mediator will follow-up to ensure both parties are following-through and that peace has/is being made.
If necessary: Only when the initiator and offenders are both believers and members of the church:
- If sinful action by the initiator or offender is not owned as sinful or destructive to their relationship with the other party, with the church and with the Lord, the reconciliation process is stalled. The process will then progress to Stage 3.
Stage 3—Pre-Church Discipline
“He/she refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17a)
- The mediator (pastoral staff or Elder(s)) will review/educate both the initiator and the offender on our church discipline (Peacemaking) policy. Both parties (only if members) will be asked to submit to this policy and the additional steps now necessary in the process for the purpose of reconciliation.
- Process then focuses on resolving the offense by asking the offender to seek ownership a second time using principles of biblical confession, determining appropriate consequences, and seeking the other party for forgiveness.
- Reconciliation achieved.
If this latest attempt at sin-ownership, confession and repentance fails, the process will then progress to Stage 4 and a possible disciplinary process.
Stage 4—Disciplinary Process Exercised
“Treat them as you would an unbeliever/unrepentant sinner” (Matthew 18:17b)…“That his/her spirit saved.” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5,12-13)
- The Elders (along with any mediators who have been involved up to this point) will meet with the offender to confront the sin and to make a plea for confession and repentance.
If this third attempt at sin ownership, confession and repentance by the Elders fails, the Elders will once more review the church discipline (peacemaking) policy and the consequences will be defined, which may include a period of separation from membership and/or participation with the church. The goal of visible repentance is quantified with recommended actions.
- An Elder follows up with the offender according to established terms with the one being disciplined.
Treating others as unbelievers/unrepentant sinners
- It is important to remember how Jesus viewed the tax collectors, prostitutes, and people who had been pushed to the margins. They were the ones drawn to His message.
- Although they are treated as unbelievers and unrepentant sinners, they are ARE NOT treated as outsiders.
- With the exception of being asked to leave the church for a period of time, we welcome them just as we would anyone.
Sample Church Discipline and Restoration Letter
A person _______ following the steps outlined in Matthew 18:15-17, has brought before the Elders the events and circumstances regarding your decisions and behavior, __________________________. The Bible’s clear teaching reveals that this constitutes sin.
While this acknowledgment of sin is the beginning of repentance, our conversations with you reveal that you have never truly owned—as exclusively yours—the full burden of your sin against God. Accordingly, we do not recognize true, behavior-altering repentance in you.
Your action discourages restoration and reconciliation. The Bible’s clear teaching is that _____________ is a violation of God’s will and is sin. In the process and fact of _____________, you are making a volitional decision to sin.
In 1 Peter 5:5 and in Matthew 18:17, respectively, the Bible directs members of the church to be subject to its Elders, and it holds the Elders responsible to discipline those who refuse to listen to the church. Galatians 6:1 directs us to attempt to restore one who is caught in a trespass in a spirit of gentleness, recognizing that all of us are capable of the same or other sin.
It is in this spirit of gentleness and restoration toward you that, after hours of meetings with you, careful consideration of biblical precepts, and extensive prayer and deliberation by the Elders, we present the following outline of discipline for you. The time period for these requirements will be _____ , at the end of which you may reapply for membership, to be determined by the Elders, based upon your decisions and behavior during the ____ . We encourage you to continue to attend Life Church to receive fellowship and God’s Word.
- You will be removed from membership of the church.
- You will not participate in the observance of communion.
- You will not assume any leadership position within the church.
- You will abstain from __________________.
- You will be a productive participant in a ___________ program at the church.
- You will be accountable to another member of the church, most likely ______________.
- Exhibit repentance through temperate and gracious treatment of _______, toward the goal of restoration of a Christ-glorifying relationship.
- We will inform several members, your close contacts at the church, of this action to discipline. You will be invited to attend this meeting.
God tells us that there are severe consequences for continuing in sin. He assures us that our prayers are hindered when we fail to ______________. However, He assures us that he who confesses and forsakes transgressions will find compassion. His children in Christ are forever forgiven and welcome in His arms.
Although you must be held accountable for your actions, the Elders value you as a brother/sister in Christ and as a fellow struggler. We truly hope that you will remain with us as you are strengthened and restored in your journey in Christ.
Grace & Peace –
Life Church Elders