The Other Side of Church Discipline

“Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. 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.”

(2 Corinthians 2:5-8 ESV)

A few weeks ago, I saw something incredibly encouraging take place at my new church: church discipline that works.

For those who are unfamiliar, church discipline is a process in which a person who claims to be a disciple of Jesus but is engaging in continued, unrepentant sin is confronted humbly and lovingly by another believer, then a few believers, and ultimately a pastor of his church. If the person still refuses to repent of his sin even after being shown his fault using the Scriptures, the church has the responsibility to renounce publicly this person’s membership in that local congregation. The members of that congregation are encouraged to treat him, not as a brother, but as they would treat an outsider, with respect and dignity but not brotherly affection.

The purpose of church discipline is three-fold: for the sake of the sinner, to shock them to their senses and bring them to repentance; for the sake of the other members of the church family, to remind them of the seriousness of unrepentant sin in their lives; and for the sake of the church, to ensure that the outside world doesn’t see a member engaging in defiant sin and associate that with the Church as a whole.

Church discipline seems to be incredibly misunderstood by many people in the Evangelical Church. It’s sometimes conflated with oppressive authoritarian power-mongering and cult-like behavior. It’s seen as being too cruel, too abused, or too toxic to be practiced openly.  Perhaps part of our broken and diseased religious culture of keeping-up-appearances has led to a large-scale abandonment of this practice, in favor of letting “Top Men”(TM) address these issues (sometimes resulting in the disappearance of former church members without a word to the rest of the congregation).

But when it is done rightly, church discipline can be a beautiful thing. Especially when a church body gets to experience the other side of it.

In I Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul commands the church in Corinth to expel so-called “brothers” who engaged in clear, defiant sin. But then in II Corinthians 2, Paul later says that when someone repents after being disciplined in this way, he should be received back with love, comfort, and forgiveness.

It’s not often you hear people discuss the restoration of an excommunicated believer–possibly because as rare as church discipline seems to be, the restoration of one who has been so disciplined is rarer still. But, as I said, I got to see it a few weeks ago.

I don’t know the situation behind the event, and as a recent attendee who is not yet an official member of the church body, it’s none of my business.  The pastor called a man forward and stood with him in front of the congregation. He said something to the effect of, “You know ___ and you remember what happened earlier this summer when we voted to remove him from our church. Well, the elders and I are pleased to tell you that he has repented of his sin and returned to us, and we are happy to recommend him to be restored to membership within this body.”  The members of the church then voted fully in the affirmative to receive him back.

The pastor then said, “What we have here is a picture of the Gospel, as Christ pursues us and reconciles us to Himself. We affirm that this Gospel is true, and so we commit that we will never speak again of those past events. This man’s sin, like our sin, has been covered by the blood of Jesus.”

Then he prayed with and over the man, as the pastor and more than a dozen others laid hands on him, praying for his continued growth and faithfulness and thanking God for his restoration.

And then, after the service, the church family had a party to celebrate the man’s “return.” Like the rejoicing over the prodigal son, this church family rejoiced over the repentance and restoration of their brother. It thrilled my heart to see such a thing. It also reminded me that when you neglect loving discipline in the church, you deny yourself the chance to rejoice when it results in reconciliation.

This is the ultimate goal of church discipline: not judgment, not shaming, not control, but the loving and difficult correction of a sinner that results in forgiveness, restoration, and celebration.

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If you are in a church that practices church discipline well, take a moment and thank your pastors and elders for being faithful to the command of Jesus.

If you are in a church that doesn’t do this well, I would encourage you to pray about it, study the Scriptures, and then try to start the conversation (humbly, gently, respectfully) with your pastor.

If you are a pastor/elder, and you don’t do this as well as you ought, let me encourage you as a lay-person in the Church: this is for the good of your flock. Love them well by being faithful in this practice.

Here are a few good articles from the summer that address this issue, if you want more food for thought.

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