Dr. Randy White
The almost total abandonment of church discipline has been bemoaned for years now. The call for discipline has sounded forth far and wide, but the implementation of discipline has not occurred.
Discipline is necessary for two simple reasons. First, it is biblical! Matthew 18 and 1 Timothy 5 give the instruction and guidelines for both member and pastor discipline, respectively. If we are going to be biblical, we simply must discipline. Second, discipline of wayward or backsliding church members simply the loving thing to do. Discipline expresses our love for the Lord, His Word, and His people. Just like a good father would not allow his child to go unpunished, so the church will not allow her members to dishonor the name of the Lord and of the faith.
The need for church discipline is perhaps at an all-time high since the church at Corinth! Absenteeism alone could become a matter of discipline, since most churches can barely gather together a third of their membership on any given Sunday, and probably less than half over any give year.
While we can gather together and talk of the need to discipline, I believe there are two reasons that churches cannot effectively discipline their members today. Until these two issues are dealt with, the talk of discipline will be just that: talk.
Perhaps the most prominent reason why churches cannot discipline today is because membership in their fellowship means absolutely nothing. In the church I pastor, for example, membership means you can vote and serve in leadership. That’s all it means. By any stretch, one would have to say that these two issues are of minuscule importance in a study of Biblical church membership. A study of American church membership, however, would reveal that my church is not alone. I and other pastors have not pressed for a change of thinking about membership. Why not?
The answer is easy: because I’m not sure we’re ready to go there yet. Sometimes you have to work on a big issue incrementally. This is one that needs work!
The Baptist denomination, of which I am a part, has a history of solid church membership. Sadly, it is a distant history, but its after-effects stay with us to this day. In fact, anyone who is a Baptist will understand some terms that come from this history, though they probably cannot tell you what the terms mean. For example, a Baptist knows what it means when someone joins a church “by promise of a letter” or simply “by letter.” This term has its roots in solid membership ideals. Today, it is simply a leftover phrase from a forgotten era. (Today’s more accurate terminology would be “promise of an e-mail!”)
In earlier days, the “letter of recommendation” was given by the church to the member, who would take the letter to a new church when he was ready to join. After a while, the church quit giving letters and the member would join “on promise of a letter.” The letter, in time, came to be a fill-in-the-blank form rather than a real letter of recommendation. Early forms, however, did give places for information about a members attendance record, consistency in giving, service roles, and whether the member was in “good-standing.” Today’s letter (e-mail) usually just says that the person was, indeed, a member of the church. Today’s letter is nothing more than a book-keeping record.
Not so in the early days. Originally, a person stood before the congregation for a vote to receive the member. It took a motion, a second, discussion, and an approval of the congregation (which would joyfully approve membership of one who had made a clear profession of faith in Christ and did not have a lifestyle that would tarnish the Lord’s name.) Today, the “vote” in most Baptist churches is simply the introduction of the candidate for membership and the words “if you are in favor of receiving this person into membership, say Amen!”
But even more important than the inflow was the outflow process. Early Baptists believed that if one did not become a member of the congregation without membership approval, they also did not cease to become a member without approval. This simple practice, were it exercised today, would halt “church hopping” and the epidemic rate of running from problems seen among churches today. In other words, this would enable church discipline because membership would mean something!
Imagine that you are upset with the music or preaching or carpet-color of First Church. In America, you would simply decide to go to Second Church (which presumably has better music, preaching, or carpet-color). You would join Second Church until you became upset with something there, at which time you would “feel led” to move to Third Church. This process continues until many are now members of Fifth to the Second Power Church! But what if you had to go to the church business meeting and ask the congregation for a release from your membership and a letter of recommendation before you left First Church,? The “what if” answer is easy to answer. Here’s the possibly scenario:
- You would first determine that your issue was legitimate before going to the congregation. You would not risk the embarrassment of taking a spurious issue before an entire congregation. You would likely not go to the congregation with a petty personality difference.
- If your issue was legitimate, the congregation could deal with it, and thus make for a more healthy church.
- If your issue was not legitimate, you could deal with your own attitude, knowing you can’t run from the problem.
With this standard reinstated, the church-hopping would cease almost overnight. My sad guess, however, is that pragmatic, grow-by-any-means churches would not care a cow’s lick if a member of First Church came with no letter of recommendation. Even if one church tightens membership standards, the problem of “the church” is not fixed.
If entrance and exit standards are raised to the congregational level, then membership means something so that a discipline process can now begin to be developed.
The second problem with church discipline today is that few churches are willing to go by the Biblical instruction for discipline. Regardless of how strongly they claim to be “a people of the Book,” those same people squirm at the thought of Biblical fidelity in church discipline.
Let me explain. Matthew 18:15-17 gives a three-step process for confronting a brother in sin. It is only a three-step process, which is where the modern church member begins to squirm.
The three-step process is:
- Go to the person with a one-on-one conversation, seeking repentance or renewal of the relationship.
- Go to the person with two or three others, saying the same thing as was said in the first visit, and seeking the same.
- Go to the congregation with the charges, saying the same thing as in the previous two meetings, and seeking the same result.
Why does this make modern church-members squirm? Because of its simplicity! I don’t think I know of a church that would be ready to implement this process. Individuals may do the personal visit (far too often they begin with step 2). A group of two or three may even make the follow-up visit (far too often the “charges” have expanded from the original visit, if it was made). After these visits, the only Biblical continuation is the church–not the Pastor, deacons, membership committee, Sunday School class, or any other group that is not the church.
Going so quickly to the church, while it seems irresponsible and dangerous, is actually a safe-guard against the accused. If a false accusation is given opportunity to have life through ad infinitum discussions, then the accused never gets his day in court, where he can face his accusers. I’ve learned that there is nothing that kills secret agendas like the spotlight! God protects the accused by turning on the spotlight very quickly. In this way, an accuser thinks through his accusation, making sure he is ready to take it to the church quickly and publicly in short order. (Incidentally, in the Old Testament if an accuser made a false accusation, he would receive the punishment due a person guilty of such an accusation).
Fixing the Problem
I’m convinced the real discipline problem is a membership and a process problem. If we would begin to treat membership as a covenant obligation, and then treat discipline within the membership with complete Biblical fidelity, then church discipline could be a huge blessing to the church. Let’s head in that direction!
Other resources that may interest you on this subject:
- When the Pastor Sins
Walk with Dr. White through Matthew 18 to learn about common relationship habits we have developed that consistently bring harm to our relationships. Learn to rid yourself of harmful relationship habits.
This series includes 8 sermons on CD and is especially helpful for those wanting to know more about church-discipline or conflict.
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