Church Discipline in the 21st Century

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The role of righteous judgment in a New Testament church’s life


She stopped me in the corner of our sanctuary, barely coherent as she sobbed into her Kleenex and told me about the true state of their marriage. As she cried out some of her sorrow and pain, I looked across the room and saw her husband smiling and shaking hands with some of the guys. I knew they were having significant problems—I had even appealed to him on multiple occasions to repent for some hurtful choices he was making—but I didn’t know the depth of the dysfunction and deception.

And as she poured out her heart while he put up a good front with his friends, I knew that I had suddenly been pulled in to a crossroad that asked the question: Would I keep silent, or would I make a righteous judgment and confront unrepentant sin and compromise in my congregation?

This isn’t a fun crossroad. Even though the apostle Paul was willing to say to a remorseless congregant, “I’m handing you over to Satan until your sinful nature is destroyed” (see 1 Cor. 5:5), it’s still challenging for a pastor or ministry leader to wrestle with their role in making righteous judgments in the church.

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In our desperate attempts to get people to join our congregations and ministries, and in our desire to model the unconditional love of Christ in a culture so quick to shout, “Don’t judge me!” it’s easy for us to shy away from the biblical responsibility to “judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24).

Dutch Sheets, senior pastor of Freedom Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., recently stated: “We have bought into the lie that true discipline is ‘shooting our wounded.’ We have made a mockery of biblical restoration, making ‘ministry’—not healthy individuals, marriages and families—its ultimate goal. The fact is, integrity matters. No, we don’t need legalistic, pharisaical standards, but we must have standards.”

Rediscovering and implementing those standards is a worthy goal, especially in a culture increasingly bent toward moral relativism and shades of gray. The writer of Hebrews said, “Those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives” (12:6, NASB). Appropriate, properly applied discipline is foundational to our spiritual growth and development; however, for us leaders in the 21st century, it is a delicate process filled with multiple challenges.

First, since the prevailing culture around us is one of tolerance and acceptance, any attempt to exert spiritual authority or discipline in a person’s life can be seen as inappropriate meddling or control. The phrase “Don’t judge me” has become the mantra for a generation that doesn’t want to be told when they’re wrong. It’s interesting to note, however, that it’s not a new mantra. It appeared in Genesis 19:9 when Lot pleaded with the men from Sodom to not assault his guests and they replied, “This one came in as an alien, and already he is acting like a judge” (NASB).

When people don’t want to be held accountable, their immediate response is, “Don’t judge me.” And since Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt. 7:1, NIV), it’s easy to get confused on the subject and erroneously think that He was encouraging a non-engagement with issues of sin, error and compromise. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Though it’s good to guard against abuses and misuses of spiritual authority, this fear can be carried to extremes where we refrain from making judgments altogether—even righteous ones. According to the reformer John Calvin, this is deadly: “All who wish that discipline were abolished, or who impede its restoration, whether by thoughtlessness or design, certainly are aiming at the complete devastation of the church.”

Second, the authority of church leaders is primarily a relational authority, and despite God’s backing and anointing on our lives, our people will submit to us only if they choose to. This knowledge can paralyze leaders who see the need to address certain issues but fear that if they do the person will simply drift off to someone else’s ministry.

Third, the reluctance to practice church discipline can also stem from our own areas of unresolved sin. Paul said, “If we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged” (1 Cor. 11:31, NASB), and if we’ve been slack in judging ourselves, it can feel hypocritical to judge someone else.

Despite these challenges, however, we must not shirk our responsibility to apply appropriate church discipline. To do so is to foster what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” In his classic statement, he said: “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

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