January 21, 2021

Where Is Church Discipline When You Need It? (Part 4): Does Church Discipline Always Look Like Church Discipline?

My posts so far have carried an agenda. I would like readers to consider what church discipline looks like when it is the church’s compassionate ministry to those who are suffering, rather than primarily a punitive action toward those who are sinning.

I am aware that, according to a full understanding of church discipline, it is compassionate to deal with someone in a way that their need for repentance and returning to faith in Christ becomes obvious in their life. What concerns me is that the paradigm for church discipline is assumed to be radical surgery rather than the promotion of health in as much of the body as possible.

There are Christians who need church leadership to step up and take church discipline seriously, but not by attempting to turn an issue into a “bring it before the church,” I Corinthians 5 kind of response. These are persons who need church leaders to show an interest as shepherds, offering oversight, accountability, resources or mentoring, as needed, in situations that might normally be ignored.

In other words, where there is genuine sinful behavior that is affecting a spouse, child, family or fellow church member, the church should act like the church, with gentle and consistent reminders and interventions pointing to the onset of a process that can bring the entire church into a “sin intervention” process.

Many people who are hurting and suffering have a tremendous sense of isolation. They are afraid of embarrassment. Some are intimidated. Others believe they are to blame. In some situations, the church has made it clear that it does not want the responsibility of making judgments in personal conflicts because this may cause tension in the congregation or even among leaders.

But the fact is that the overall dynamics of being the church gives the church a stake in the success of every marriage, the effectiveness of every parent, the health of every relationship within the church and the openness of the doors of leaders to deal with real problems without embarrassment.

When a church waits until only “serious” issues surface, they run a greater risk of not resolving the issue before more traditional discipline becomes likely. The most redemptive, useful church discipline should happen in “Step 1,” with personal confrontation leading to resolution, repentance and healing.

Some of these situations demand a level of wisdom, care and spiritual insight that we do not see at all in the rush for a “church growth” pastor. It is no wonder that so many people leave the church hurt and discouraged when the church is not an ally in these kinds of situations. We find it easier to publish and promote a sermon series on DVD that to ordain and support a pastor who can talk to an irresponsible husband or a son taking advantage of his parents.

Those familiar with the Andy Griffith Show will know why I always think of Sheriff Andy Taylor in this kind of discussion. Sheriff Taylor was a law enforcement officer who was capable of being tough, but he preferred to be a friend, encourager, teacher and surrogate parent to those who found themselves doing the wrong thing. Our leaders need to have the “Sheriff Taylor” attitude: Shepherd the sheep carefully and you’ll have to fire your gun a lot less often.

I also hope that all of you will realize something. For me this issue of church discipline gets into something very personal.

There is a situation in my life, now past and over, that might have been resolved entirely differently if I were part of a Christian community that would practice “Jesus shaped” discipline and shepherding at an early stage.

I don’t have the option of being part of such a community. When I sought help from fellow Christians, I did not find anyone who was willing to venture into my life to help me. Instead, I was blamed for admitting my part in a problem, and eventually the problem was put in the context of “every person doing what they believe is right.” I love my Christian brothers and sisters, but this situation demonstrated to me that we can be profoundly unhelpful to one another in situations where we need the Body of Christ to act like a community instead of an audience.

If I were part of the kind of church my friend Frank Turk has so often written about, I believe I could have asked for help and found help, at an early stage, that would have made a tremendous difference. At the least, the concerns of other Christians would have carried some weight, even if no resolution was possible.

Instead, I had to deal with the issue myself. I dealt with it poorly, and I dealt with it alone. The results are now over and will never change.

Punitive church discipline, of course, could be applied now, and some would rejoice in it. At this point, in my opinion, discipline would be pointless, cruel and unhelpful. But earlier, the right kind of gentle, straightforward intervention could have made a great difference.

It is my fault and my responsibility that I am not in this kind of church or in this kind of situation. Be that as it may, it is easy for me to see the difference a pastoral, practical, early, compassionate application of church discipline could make for those who are facing a problem they cannot respond to effectively alone.

What should we do? A series of questions to close this out?

Does your church see discipline in a broad and helpful way, or in a narrow and punitive way?

Do you understand the many situations where the loving, but straightforward appearance of church discipline can make a difference? (Even if it cannot solve the problem.)

Does pastoral counseling take into account the place of church discipline?

Are leaders accessible? Can concerns of this type be heard “safely” and confidentially?

Are pastors and elders free to come into those levels of our lives, families and experiences where support of the church is needed and helpful?

Do pastors and elders know how to bring church discipline into the picture in the various ways suggested in Matthew 18 and I Corinthians 5?

Is church discipline grounded in grace and the Gospel? Does it build the community of Jesus?

Do we desire our community to know our struggles? Are we willing to be that gentle and helpful friend representing God’s people when needed?

Are we developing spiritual gifts and ministries that can respond to these kinds of situations with compassion and experience? (Both for the offender and the offended)


  1. Rather than waste anymore of your bandwidth I think I’ll just take these questions to the leaders of our fellowship see where that takes us. My guess is that if we addressed each of these questions in a serious and thoughtful way it would radically transform the nature of our group. Thanks for taking this subject seriously.

  2. Your ideas for church discipline offer a valuable model for family discipline as well. Thanks.

  3. Theophilus says

    Honestly, I think community is the best way to handle problems. I think church discipline should be a last resort. I think pastors should preach on self discipline more often. (I am nondenom) Finally, as we are a growth oriented church, the more “mature” members should realize that we have a stewardship of the new converts. I regularly pray that our church would function as a greenhouse for new converts. I have thoroughly enjoyed these posts.

  4. “It is my fault and my responsibility that I am not in this kind of church or in this kind of situation.” — No, no, no, iMonk, this is where the Church has so failed so many times over the centuries.

    On an earlier posting, I had commented on the guilt that the Church has for its terrible failures in this area. It should have been the job of Holy Mother Church to bring believers into her loving embrace. It should not be your responsibility to find such a Church.

    I realize that the cultural reality is that the individual believer is now tasked with finding a place of safety and refuge, where they can be gathered as a chick is gathered under the wings of their mother and God their Father. But that is a responsibility that should never have fallen upon the individual believer.

    I know that all of us have engaged, and must engage, in that search. But, when the Final Judgment comes, how terrible will be the judgment on those of us in Church leadership that failed to provide a place of refuge, safety, discipline, counseling, and sound pastoral care to the little ones under our care.

    May God have mercy on those of us in Church leadership.

  5. Exceptional ending to the series, Michael, and a great balance point. Thanks.

  6. Memphis Aggie says

    I think you make the case well, effective correction is offered gently, early and personally, preferably by someone you respect. it’s an corollary
    of your early nugget: “morality grows out of love”. Effective correction is loving not bullying.

    So, given this reality, there are obvious implications for any large church where pastoring is inherently diluted by the scale.


    “we need the Body of Christ to act like a community instead of an audience.”

    Another nugget of wisdom, thanks.

  7. I praise God that I am able to be in a church that practices church discipline, among pastors who operate from a standpoint of grace. There are many who preach grace, but don’t operate in it. My pastors walk what they talk. Thank you for this series, Michael.

  8. Absence relationship, can church discipline work, or even happen? Weird does not begin to describe the church that does not know many of its people and does not respond to personal crises in their lives, but thinks they must correct those same people’s views on the proper method of baptism, the role of women, how to vote, how to dress, who one may date or live with and a thousand other issues.

    If you wish to speak into my life, first you must build a relationship with me. Absent the relationship, what you say is meaningless to me, unless you sign my paycheck. Until I know you care, I do not care what you or your church think.

    If you don’t know my daughter’s name, never contacted me when I almost died, avoided me when my wife left and only mumbled “tough luck” when you heard I lost my job, then you have no right to say anything when my girlfriend moves in. Even if you do say something I won’t hear you because I know you don’t care about me. You only care about how it looks to the church.

  9. I absolutely understand where church discipline could take on many areas of our lives that are so simple, Biblically speaking, yet we’ve wandered so far from truth and reality that it takes “counseling”, pharmaceutical drugs, rehab, Children and Family Services, Public Aid, and so on and so on, to “solve” these problems that are often (I know it’s not always this simple) solved by someone older and wiser advising us about Proverbs, for instance, or an experienced Mom taking a young married woman under her wing. Perhaps many have such a gut reaction to the words “Church Discipline” because of the way they were raised (entitlement issues anyone?). This is a very intriguing subject, and I’ve enjoyed each of your posts. Life is just so complicated today, and people are so far removed from “discipline” themselves, that this seems like a foreign subject, but it’s really just Biblical no-nonsense simplicity itself. CJH

  10. I really like your hololistic view of Church discipline. Andy is a great metaphor. Do we also get to come in and lock ourselves up . . . when we are drunk? Anyway . . .

    I sit near the back door of my Evangelical church . . . figuratively. I would have one or both feet out the door, however, my other ankle is secured to my wife’s . . . who sits comfortably in the middle of the church.

    Our church has hemorrhaged members out the back door since I’ve been coming . . . but the new members (hemorrhaged from other churches) coming in the front door keeps it in a state of equilibrium.

    Because of the recent exodus of several key members, some to no church, the pastor preached series on, “Why God Wants You in His Church . . . and Not Alone, or in the Emerging Church.” One of the main reasons, he gave, for not leaving was “church discipline.”

    That struck me as odd because my craving for church discipline, the type that you were describing, is the VERY reason I have an ankle out the door in the first place. In this church it is a scandal to discuss anything personal . . . until it is a total disaster.

    I voiced my opinion after one of our key church families suddenly (and to everyone’s shock) announced they were divorcing. I argued that the reason we didn’t see this coming was that we do not have any place to share candidly, and safely, within our church. The pastor’s outspoken mother, in frustration at my comments, said, “God’s church is no place to air your dirty laundry!”

    It was about that time I cracked the back door.

  11. I hope it’s alright if I add an excerpt from Lauren Winner’s book “Real Sex”, where she responds to the notion that our personal morality and character is not anyone else’s business:

    “But the Bible tells us to intrude — or rather, the Bible tells us that talking to one another about what is really going on in our lives is in fact not an intrusion at all, because what’s going on in my life is already your concern; by dint of the baptism that made me your sister, my joys are your joys and my crises are your crises. We are called to speak to one another lovingly, to be sure, and with edifying, rather than gossipy or hurtful, goals. But we are called nonetheless to transform seemingly private matters into communal matters.

    Of course, premarital sexual behavior is just one of many instances of this larger point. Christians also need to speak courageously and transparently, for example, about the seemingly private matters of Christian marriage — there would be, I suspect, a lot fewer divorces in the church if married Christians exposed their domestic lives, their fights and tensions and squabbles, to loving wisdom, advice, and sometimes rebuke from their community. Christians might claim less credit card debt if small-group members shared their bank account statements with one another. I suspect that if my best friend had permission to scrutinize my Day-timer, I would inhabit time better.

    Speaking to one another about our sexual selves is just one (admittedly risky) instance of a larger piece of Christian discipleship: being in community with each other.”

    She goes on to make a point similar to what Sam said above – – that this can only occur in a context of ongoing community and friendship, so when it’s time to speak the truth, where the context of love has already been established.

  12. So often the assumption is that people don’t want to be disciplined — and given many definitions of discipline that makes sense. But some of us know we’re in a messy (sinful) place, but we don’t know the way out — or we just are tired from trying. We would love for someone to help us deal with wrong thoughts and behaviors — even if it’s only to encourage. But pastors seem too busy to meet with people on a weekly (or semi-weekly) basis, and members of the congregation don’t seem to think it’s their job. Rarely does anyone talk about anything much more important than the weather or the grandkids.

  13. Sam, those are very good points that you make. I agree with you.

    And this was an excellent series, Michael. Thank you.

  14. Steve, your comment gives me a clue, but I do wonder and worry about how we often fail institutionally at least to provide the same community for lapsed, post-, or strayed Christians, who are haunted by the ghosts of beliefs they’d rather be rid of and we’d rather try to resurrect..

  15. Teenage Mutant Ninja Tertullian says

    You paint a rather rosy picture of “church discipline” in which people are relieved, rather than ashamed or angered, to be made its objects. I suspect that your anecdotes are selective. Setting aside the vast theological defenses which you have erected its behalf, has “church discipline” ever actually worked so well? I suppose like anything else, its record will be mixed, but I wonder whether the negatives (intrusiveness, unfairness in application, etc.) might not outweigh the positives.

  16. I hate the term “church discipline” because even though the church isn’t mentioned until the third step, many think of the church as an institutionalized thing in the control of leaders so that the leaders should be involved in each step. Individuals and groups are mentioned by Jesus, not necessarily leaders. We all have responsibility.

    Sam is right. Without community where all members are involved it is meaningless. Your list of questions would be a great start in examining how we all “do” discipline. Even excommunication is designed to turn a sinner back to God.

  17. I enjoyed reading this too, and think Sam’s comments above also are pretty true. All in all, the church “discipline” subject seems to follow in with every day guidance and growth. To me at this point anyway.

  18. Love the discussion here. We have found developing deep relationships creates a safe place to share our struggles with others, but that means being vulnerable and overcoming our individualistic culture by trusting others with our hearts. Obviously that sets us up for the potential of serious hurt, but quite frankly the alternative is not an option. Discipline in the church is just like any other area: That is Satan doesn’t care which ditch we end up in as long as it isn’t the middle of the road. My heart goes out to any of you who have been hurt seriously in this way, but I encourage you to keep your courage and stick with what the Bible teaches. So often when we get hurt we want to say, “That didn’t work” and dismiss it, but in reality it’s fallen man who hasn’t lived it out properly that’s the problem. Lastly any kind of discipline seasoned with love and humility (remembering I make mistakes too) goes a long way towards winning the offender.

  19. Brothers, as a dedicated tither and churchgoer I am deeply concerned by the failure of the modern church to fully discipline those in the congregation that are not working hard enough or making enough money as commanded by the Apostle Saint Paul. Paul commanded in the name of Jesus that those that do not spend day and night making money are to be outcast, they are to be publicly shamed and humiliated. We all know that Jesus spoke many times of a generation which would spend all it’s time buying and selling and building as commanded by the doctrine of Paul, yet there are those in the church that do not fully obey Pauline doctrine and that do not desire such a world. All sound doctrine is based around the holiness of work and the sanctity of money making, yet in this wicked time there are those that do not wish to make money. I now command you to reconsider your actions and have nothing to do with him that does not work enough or make enough money.

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