Church Discipline in an Undisciplined Culture

Many biblical passages make clear that the Christian Church is to exercise care that its members are regenerated Christians.  Today’s Adventist Church, however, has followed the rest of Western Christianity in abandoning church discipline. 

 The Demise of Church Discipline

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, describes the situation as follows:

"No longer concerned with maintaining purity of confession or lifestyle, the contemporary church sees itself as a voluntary association of autonomous members, with minimal moral accountability to God, much less to each other.  The absence of church discipline is no longer remarkable—it is generally not even noticed. Regulative and restorative church discipline is, to many church members, no longer a meaningful category, or even a memory. The present generation of both ministers and church members is virtually without experience of biblical church discipline."

This is an apt description not only of evangelical and Protestant Christianity in America, but of Seventh-day Adventism.

Why has discipline been allowed to fall into disuse?  There are many reasons, but perhaps the most significant one is that our conception and practice of church has changed.  The Greek word for church, ekklesia, is a compound of two roots, ek = “out” and kaleo = “to call”; thus, ecclesia means those who have been called out.  The Christian church was called out of the world and into service to God.

The earliest Christians keenly felt a sense of being called out and set apart to form a consecrated spiritual community.  The early church was a tight-knit community.  In the beginning, all money was held in a common fund out of which the needs of the individuals were provided for (Acts 2:44-46).  The church cared for its members in ways that are familiar today, such as by preaching the word (2 Tim. 4:2; Acts 6:2).  But there was also a social welfare aspect to the church in that it provided a food distribution system for the indigent (Acts 6:2-5; 9:36).  No one was left to fend for himself.

Not everyone could fit within and contribute to this type of close-knit spiritual and economic community.  Scripture tells us that the early church had no room for idle men (2 Thess. 3:6, 11) idle single women of marriageable age (1 Tim. 5:11-13), sexually immoral people (1 Cor. 5:9, 11), divisive, contentious people (Rom. 16:17), those who wanted to fashion new doctrines or a different Gospel (1 Cor. 11:2;2 Thess. 2:15; Gal. 1:7-9) heretics and schismatics (Titus 1:10-11), greedy people, idolaters, the verbally abusive, drunkards, or swindlers (1 Cor. 5:11).  There was no room for feuds or ill-feeling between Christians (Mat. 18:17).  Expelling those who could not abide by the expectations of the community was crucial to the mission of the early church.  In those early days, discipline was supernaturally aided, as seen in the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).

But we do not “do church” that way today.  Not only do we not feel “called out” of the world, arguably we attend church as part of our worldly activities.  Church has evolved into one or two hours of spiritually-themed entertainment on a Saturday morning.  Most members make little commitment of time beyond that. 

There is little sense of mutual obligation to care for one another’s economic and physical needs.  There is often a “Dorcas Society,” but it typically does nothing more ambitious than sort through and distribute old clothes.  About half of Adventists pay tithe, but the money is whisked away to a central “storehouse,” relieving the local giver of both the obligation and the ability to track how it is spent—or misspent. 

There is little or no submission to “the elders who rule well,” (1 Tim. 5:17) even in spiritual matters.  Some conceive of paid ministers as employees, like store clerks who bag our groceries, not as authority figures—a conception of the clergy that partly explains why so many men have no objection to ordained female ministers.  It makes little sense to us that we should be morally accountable to the church.  After all, once we have paid our bill, we are not morally accountable to our cable company, or our telephone company, or anyone else who provides us with entertainment.    

Much of our aversion to a disciplined church is driven by modern Western culture.  We live in a fiercely individualistic society, and the church is one of several institutions that have lost the ability to penetrate the zone of personal privacy and moral autonomy Westerners claim for themselves.  We deem that the local congregation, a mere voluntary association, has no right to intrude into this zone of privacy and autonomy. 

But if God’s remnant church is to see reformation and revival we must stop thinking of church as an hour or two of spiritually-themed entertainment on a Sabbath morning and instead view the church as an organization with an urgent purpose and mission, and which must be trained, organized, and disciplined as an army is disciplined.  Church discipline must be re-instituted. 

 God’s People are to be a Holy People

We are not to tolerate open sin in the church.  God has always asked of His people that they consecrate themselves and be holy.  “I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” (Lev. 11:44).  “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth” (Deut. 7:6). 

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Pet. 2:9-10). 

“Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful lusts, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Pet. 2:11-12). “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” (Col. 1:21-22).  Our holiness is the evidence that we have been reconciled to God through the body of Christ.  Therefore, “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” (2 Cor 7:1).

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:11-14).  Christ wants a church that is radiant, “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Eph. 5:27).

An undisciplined church that is not striving for holiness is not the church God wants.  The church is called to holiness; we who are “eager to do what is good” should settle for no less.

Biblical Examples of Discipline

a.      Parental Discipline

Discipline is part of any loving, cohesive group, beginning with the family. “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Prov. 22:6. “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” Prov. 13:24. As the author of Hebrews writes, “for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  If you are left without discipline . . . then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” Heb. 12:7-8.  Discipline is evidence of love.  The father who fails to discipline hates his child and is treating his child as illegitimate. 

The man who aspires to be a bishop/overseer in the church must have successfully practiced discipline in his own home: “He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church?” 1 Tim. 3:4-5. 

Just as the father who fails to discipline is not motivated by love, the church that fails to discipline its members is not acting out of love.  An undisciplined child is doomed to failure as an adult, and likewise a church that will not discipline its members is setting them up to fail in the judgement and be condemned to eternal death. 

b.      God’s direct discipline through hardship and adversity

God Himself disciplines those He loves through hardship and adversity:

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor lose courage when you are punished by him.
For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”

“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? . . . For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”  Heb. 12:5-11.  Just as God’s discipline is for the believer’s ultimate good, church discipline is for the good of both the church and the erring member.

c.       Discipline in the church

The apostle Paul laid down a marker that the church must not tolerate the immoral person in its ranks:

I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now l am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”  1 Cor. 5:9-13

The specific problem in the church at Corinth was an incestuous relationship.  1 Cor. 5:1. The prescribed response is clear and unequivocal: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”  1 Cor. 5:2.

Doctrinal heterodoxy is also an important cause for church discipline.  Jesus said that we are His disciples only if we continue in His word (John 8:31), and Paul is clear that we are to retain the teaching of the apostles.  1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15. Just as with the immoral brother who remains unrepentant, we must have nothing to do with a persistent heretic or schismatic: “As for a heretic, after admonishing him once and then a second time, refuse to associate with him, knowing that such a one is twisted and sinful, being self-condemned.”  Titus 3:10. Anyone attempting to change the Gospel must be not merely expelled, but expelled with a curse: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be anathema. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be anathema.”  Gal. 1:7-9.

The Purpose and Goal of Church Discipline

Restoration of the fallen is the goal of church discipline. The goal is not to lose a soul but to gain one, not just to have a pure and holy church but to help a fallen member back on the path to heaven.  “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Gal. 6:1.

The goal of restoration is illustrated in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  In 1 Corinthians, he had demanded that the man in an incestuous relationship be expelled.  But in the next letter he tells the church at Corinth to demonstrate their love for this man:

“For such a one this punishment by the majority is enough; so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.   So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.  For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything.   Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us; for we are not ignorant of his designs.”  2 Cor. 2:6-11.

Here Paul shows that the purpose of upholding the church’s moral standards was never to crush the offender, but rather out of love and in love to restore him.

What today’s permissive church does not comprehend is that discipline is a necessary precondition to loving restoration.  By failing to discipline, we leave the offender to die in his sins—a callous negligence that is the opposite of Christian love and concern.  We would do well to recall that we discipline our own children not out of vengeance or because we want to be rid of them but because we love them and want them to succeed.

The Process of Church Discipline

Jesus has spelled out a process of church discipline that starts with the fewest number of people and gradually widens out to the whole church:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.  But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.  Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  Mat. 18:15-20

a.       The privacy imperative

Jesus’ process keeps a matter private unless and until it cannot be kept private.  The goal is to prevent many learning of a sin in the congregation if that sin can be acknowledged and repented of with only a few knowing about it.  Again, the goal of church discipline is always repentance and restoration, never public humiliation.

In the Textus Receptus or “received text,” Mat. 18:15 reads, “If your brother sins against you,” but many Greek manuscripts omit the prepositional phrase “against you.”  Hence, the NIV translates the text, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.”  In that reading, even if your brother has not trespassed against you personally, you should still approach him privately if you have become aware of moral problem that could potentially harm the church. 

I would argue that the privacy principle is of such importance that it should not matter whether the person is sinning against you or just sinning; the process of church discipline should begin with the fewest possible persons.  If you have learned of a moral failure that might soon become public if the behavior does not stop, you should privately approach the person and let them know you know, and that they need to repent and cease the activity.  The sin is not “against you,” but you know about it and should follow the Matthew 18 protocol.  If the person repents and ceases the behavior, problem solved.  If not, then the Matthew 18 process would continue.

The importance of privacy is illustrated in the story of the woman caught in adultery.  Jesus was confronted with a public situation, but he handled it in a way to protect the privacy of those involved.  Saying, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” He began to write in the sand the sins of those who were challenging Him to stone the woman.  But note that He did not connect any sin with any individual present.  As the rabbis and teachers of the law began to see their sins written in the sand, they slunk away.  Only after the pharisaical accusers had all gone did Jesus acknowledge the woman’s sin, saying, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go and sin no more.” 

The Matthew 18 protocol does not always apply.  For example, a false or heretical teaching that has been published or publicly preached may warrant a public response without a prior private approach to the offender.  See, e.g., Testimonies to the Church, v. 2, pp. 14-16.  Even in cases where you believe a minister or elder has preached something heretical or wrong, however, you should approach the person privately to make certain you did not misunderstand what was stated from the pulpit.  If you misunderstood, problem solved.  If not, you may be able to convince the speaker to back away from preaching the error in the future.  So even in a case of publicly preached error, the Matthew 18 approach, although not mandatory, is prudent and may yield positive results. 

b.      When the matter goes church-wide

If neither the one-on-one meeting, nor the meeting with two or three elders leads to a satisfactory resolution, then the matter goes to a church-wide meeting: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Mat. 18:17.    

A Note of Caution

In today’s church in the developed world, church discipline is far more likely to be directed at conservatives than at heretical or immoral members.  Most developed world conference officers and pastors are liberal, and some will not be able to resist the temptation to use discipline against troublesome conservatives, especially those agitating for unpopular causes such as Last Generation Theology and sexual probity. 

Some readers will recall that I myself was the target of discipline at the Vallejo Drive Church, in Glendale, California.  Pastor Mike Kim was following the lead of Pastor Todd Leonard of the Glendale City Church in trying to make Vallejo Drive Church a gay-friendly church.  I was an obstacle to that agenda in that I called attention to the fact that City Church had named a gay elder, that VDC had shown a pro-gay documentary at their Friday Night services, and that VDC had hired an outside musician who appeared to be gay.  I was censured in a church-wide business meeting at which I was not even allowed to hear all the witnesses and evidence.

I have been apprised of a case in another part of the country in which there was an attempt to censure a conservative couple largely because they were strong advocates of Last Generation Theology.  The attempted censure was voted down, but the lawless church officials involved managed to achieve the same result by effectively freezing the couple’s membership and blocking their attempts to transfer their membership to another church. 

Even though church discipline can be misused and is often used against conservatives, I still believe that the correct use of church discipline—for maintaining doctrinal orthodoxy and moral purity—would be a great blessing for the church, and would lead to revival and reformation, as well as much more robust church growth.

Summary and Conclusion

The church is more than just two hours of spiritually-themed entertainment on a Sabbath Morning.  The church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, that is to be pure and spotless.  The church is called to moral purity and holiness; it is not to tolerate open sin in its midst. 

The Church must be optimally disciplined to save as many as possible from eternal death.  Discipline is a necessary function in the family, in the church, and in the larger society. 

Church discipline must always be motivated by love.  The goal of church discipline is the restoration of the fallen member to full communion and to the path that leads to eternal salvation. 

Because church discipline must never be about public humiliation, discipline should follow the protocol of Matthew 18, in which good faith attempts are made to address and solve problems privately before they are taken to the larger church.  After the process proceeds to a business meeting, it must be as fair as possible, meaning that the accused should be allowed to remain in the room and hear all the witnesses and arguments.

In Hosea, God calls the valley of Achor (Achor means “trouble”) the "door of hope." (Hosea 2:15).  God used trouble to steer Israel toward repentance and hope.  The process of discipline, though painful at the time, leads ultimately to the triumph of God’s people.  Because there is open sin in our camp, we are losing the battle to evangelize the world. God has given us the tool of church discipline to cleanse the camp and fit us to become the triumphant remnant.