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.”

Why Righteous Judgment?

We need to practice appropriate church discipline for three main reasons:

1. Because we—and our people—are sinners. We all need to experience the power of cleansing and forgiveness that sometimes only comes to us after seasons of discipline that chasten our soul and remind us of our need to be washed clean by God.

2. Because Jesus did. Like a coach who sees the champion in his or her athletes and refuses to let them settle for mediocrity, Jesus consistently called His followers to greatness, challenging and confronting their sins and shortcomings.

3. Because we are commanded to. On multiple occasions Paul, who described himself as being as gentle as a nursing mother, exercised strong authority in disciplining wayward members and encouraged his followers to do the same.

When Should We Judge?

As church leaders, we must discern the appropriate time to make righteous judgments. Know that we are to discipline ...

When conscious, unrepentant sin is at work in the life of a member. Scholars down through the ages consistently agree that it is incumbent on spiritual leaders to apply the truth of God’s Word to areas where people are harboring known, unconfessed sin. We don’t need to micromanage our people, addressing every little issue in their lives. But we do need to sound a trumpet, calling out the destructive patterns of sin, compromise and rebellion against the Lord.

When God tells us to. This point may sound obvious and straightforward, but please consider it. After David’s sin and subsequent cover-up with Bathsheba, he needed the prophet Nathan to rebuke him with the words, “You are the man!” before he would repent. Sin always hardens people’s hearts, and sometimes a gentle nudge isn’t strong enough.

Although wisdom suggests that it will be rare that we need to use this level of strength, there will be occasions when the Lord tells us to confront boldly—and it will be exactly what the situation requires.

When someone desires to serve in a leadership capacity in the church. Sometimes people will volunteer for significant ministry positions, but we are reluctant to empower them due to some issue or conflict in their lives. Often these concerns weren’t strong enough to warrant a confrontation when these people were simply attending our services, but now in light of their desire to apply for a leadership position they’ve taken on a greater urgency. In these situations it’s important to not disqualify a person without first giving them the opportunity to change—even if doing so risks potential backlash from some necessary confrontation.

A Matter of Execution

We’ve addressed the whys and whens of righteously judging others as church leaders appointed by God. But exactly how do we follow through with such tough love?

First, we are to follow the Matthew 18 principle. Jesus made it clear that if a brother sins we are to go to them privately and attempt a restoration. If that doesn’t work, we’re urged to bring along a trusted brother to try to help; and failing in that, we are to make it a congregational issue. Although in our culture issues seldom get to the congregational level—people will simply leave the church before they’ll risk public exposure and humiliation—it’s still a biblically justified step of correction for a repeatedly unrepentant person.

Wherever you are in the process of confrontation, be sure you:

Confront in love. Even though we will often be grieved over the issues at play, we don’t confront out of an angry dislike for the offending individual; we confront as a father who longs for his child to live up to his potential.

Confront with a humble attitude. We must always recognize that if not for God’s grace, we ourselves could be on the receiving end of the same correction.

Confront after getting all the facts. Remember that Proverbs 18:17 tells us: “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him” (NASB). Get all the facts and do a thorough investigation before leveling accusations.

Confront with a plan. In our confrontations we should always try to offer a strategy for lasting change and restoration.

Confront with a witness. If we’ve moved beyond Jesus’ admonition to go to our brother in private and are taking more public steps of discipline, we need to cover ourselves by securing the agreement and support of our board or staff. If the confrontation goes badly we will need some allies to testify to our integrity in handling the process.

Confront. After all the due diligence of fact-finding and personal soul-searching is done, we must step up to the plate and do it. We can’t be afraid to confront the dangerous consequences of deception and sin.

God’s desire is for reconciliation and restoration, but sometimes it can’t happen through appeasement. Sometimes sin, compromise and injustice need to be called out and opposed. Done correctly this can save marriages, families, ministries and spiritual destinies. Let’s be those leaders who pay the price to stay clean personally, who walk in the highest levels of love and relational skill, and who, consequently, have a platform from which to call sons and daughters back to God’s highest and best plan for their lives—even in the 21st century.

Chris Jackson serves as senior pastor of Grace Church of La Verne in Southern California.

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