“We don’t believe in church discipline. We don’t think you should be disfollowshipping people.”
Maybe you’ve heard those comments before. Maybe you’ve even said them before yourself. Maybe the elders at your congregation have said this out loud or through their actions (or lack of actions).
But why? Why do congregations not do this? There is a very common reason that a lot of people give. It goes something along the lines of: “Who are we to be telling people that they can’t be a Christian? Jesus didn’t do that kind of stuff. We are supposed to love people, not treat them like that.”
Honestly, that’s a pretty weak argument. All you have to do is point someone to Matthew 18:15-20, and Jesus Himself outlines how to address a brother who is living in sin. Paul expounds on it in I Corinthians 5, where he explains that the purpose of doing this is for the hope of salvation for that person’s soul. He also explains in verse 11 of that chapter that we are not to even eat with such a person.
No. Arguing that it is unloving and contrary to the nature of Jesus to carry out church discipline against someone is simply an argument from someone who does not know the scriptures, or who is choosing to ignore certain passages.
Every once in a while you will have an honest person tell you why most Christians today don’t even go down the road of church discipline: “It doesn’t work.”
Unfortunately, that statement is true more than we would like to admit. Now, there is no guarantee in the scriptures that the person will turn his or her heart back to God and put away the sin that is tearing the soul. It’s possible that the person chooses not to respond.
However, does that mean that church discipline doesn’t work? Not necessarily. That’s like doing a Bible study with someone. Just because you may not have converted the person doesn’t mean it was a failure. Our job is to plant the seed; God will take care of the harvest (I Corinthians 3:6). So, just because the person doesn’t come back to God doesn’t mean church discipline doesn’t work.
But I will openly admit that church discipline sometimes doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s meaningless.
“But Jonathan, how can you say that? You just got done saying that the Bible tells us to do it. Do you think God would tell us to do something that was pointless?”
Carrying out God’s plan is never pointless. Sometimes church discipline doesn’t work because the church doesn’t do it right. You might be doing exactly what Matthew 18 prescribes, and you may carry out every minute detail.
But what about Acts 2:44-47, or Acts 4:32-37? Take a second…go read them.
Not sure how those apply to church discipline? Well, let’s say that Jimmy is disfellowshipped from your congregation?
You say, “Jimmy, I can no longer eat a meal with you.” Jimmy says, “So what. We’ve never eat together before anyway.”
You say, “Well, you are no longer welcome in my house.” Jimmy replies, “I don’t even know where you live. You’ve never invited me over.”
You say, “Well, you can’t play with my children anymore after church.” To which Jimmy replies, “I didn’t know you even had kids. You always leave as soon as the services are over.”
The reason that church discipline doesn’t work most of the time is not because God gave us a bad plan! It’s because we aren’t acting like the church of the 1st century. We don’t spend time together. We don’t get to know the person who sits across the aisle from us every week. We see each other at services, share an obligatory hi, pretend that we have no problems in life, and then go our separate ways to not see or speak again till the next week.
The person who is disfellowshipped may not even notice a change in the relationships with those he has been worshiping with. In order for church discipline to be effective, the person is supposed to feel like he has been removed from being part of the family. He must feel a void in his life where the congregation used to be. He must notice a emptiness where his church family used to be. It should tear at his heart. It should bring him to tears knowing he can no longer spend time with his family.
And don’t use the excuse that it doesn’t work simply because he will just go to the next congregation down the road. If the congregation was really a family, then he wouldn’t want to. He would want to be right back where he was at. He would put the sin away from his life because he needs his family back.
If you work God’s plan, then God’s plan works. But don’t forget that the plan involves more than just the discipline. It starts with the structural groundwork of a church family.
We definitely need more fellowship and hearts knit together. But I wonder if the problem doesn’t go deeper.
What if the problem of weak fellowship is itself a result of no church discipline? Could it be sort of a ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg,’ type of problem? Are people not really taking the command to love one another seriously because they were converted to a Christianity that does not take discipleship seriously? If we don’t take the command to discipline seriously, why would we take the command to fellowship seriously? If half of us aren’t really led by the Spirit, well then there’s not really much “unity of the Spirit” (Eph 4) there anyway.
But another thing to consider is that church discipline works 100% of the time when we do it the way Jesus taught. This is true in that the success of church discipline shouldn’t only be measured by backslidden Christians repenting, but it should also be measured by the holiness of the church. Church discipline is for the holiness of the church, while also for the salvation of rebellious Christians. This is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:5–7 that “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?
7 Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.”
And if the church isn’t holy anyway, then why would they want to act like Christians? Fellowship is sweetest and most meaningful when we share in holiness.
That’s a great question to ponder on. The low impact of church discipline and the lack of true discipleship definitely feed off each other, and can become a quick downward spiral. And I agree that church discipline always works if done the way Christ intended. The church just messes it up a lot, and the part that I see messed up the most is the family feeling of the congregation. Too few Christian are real and open when with their Christian family, so no one truly gets close to each other.