There is a heart-wrenching chapter in Pat Conroy’s novel The Lords of Discipline. The roommate of protagonist Will McLean is drummed out of the Corps of Cadets. This is a solemn ceremony during which the whole corps is assembled in two lines and the guilty must walk between them while his classmates turn their backs on him and never mention his name again. I fear that when we mention church discipline to people, visions of Conroy’s drumming out comes to mind. They think when we “do” discipline, we are turning our backs, and never speaking their name again.
As many of our churches are “rediscovering” the need and purpose of church discipline, we need to make sure we are doing it correctly: not just by the letter of the law, but also with the right heart and motivation. The ARP Book of Discipline states:
“The purpose of discipline is to bring about the reconciliation of man to God and man to man and to engage the people of God in the ministry of reconciliation, and to promote the peace, purity, and edification of the Church.” (ARP Book of Discipline chapter 1, Section 1)
The most common type of church discipline is informal. Many might not even realize it is discipline. It is done when one Christian goes to another Christian and expresses concern, wrong, or hurt. These issues are often easily cleared up without needing others to intercede or assist. We all blow it, and it is good to have friends in your church life to hold you lovingly accountable.
Matthew 18:15-20 is the clearest passage to illustrate personal and private discipline in the church. Here, Jesus lays out key steps for how to approach a fellow Christian who has sinned against you. First, you go to them alone. If that does not work, bring in one or two others. If that does not work, bring in the church (Session). There is much wisdom here. The focus is on handling the issue privately. This alone can easily clear up misunderstandings and small offenses. Following this process allows for the wisdom of others to help mediate if need be. It is also a process that leads to a higher court to resolve issues as needed.
This scripture shows an excellent process, yet there have been some who look at these steps as hoops to jump through so as to set charges before the church. It is important to remember the heart and motive that must accompany church discipline. It is not to punish. It is not to kick out. It is not to drum a person out of the church and never speak their name again. Note well the passages that bookend Matthew 18:15-20. Just before this scripture, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep. Here we see the shepherd leaving the 99 to seek the one that is lost. Church discipline seeks the lost and wandering sheep. The passage that follows is the parable of the unforgiving servant. Few passages give me more pause than this one. As a firm believer in, and preacher of, salvation by grace alone, the words of Jesus here hit hard. Not forgiving is a grievous sin. Church discipline seeks to restore and forgive the wayward Christian.
My point is simple. We need church discipline, but we must be careful in how we administer it. Our own motives must be checked repeatedly. We must act out of love and concern for our fellow Christians. Our goal should be to address sin and restore believers back to the church. This does not always happen, but it should be our goal, our hope, and our prayer. The church should never be drumming out sinners and never speaking their names again. We should be turning toward them. We should be calling out their names. We should be trying to engage them in love and prayer. We should be pleading with them with scripture and boldness, so they may be restored to God and His church.