Lecture 13 – The Just Judge: A Man with Scales
Prevention is better than cure, especially in the sphere of church discipline. As discipline cases can very easily consume enormous amounts of time and energy, and even consume Christian leaders and churches, the prevention of church discipline should be a high leadership priority.
I believe you should study it, and teach people about it early and frequently. If you are a pastor, do it as soon as you can in your congregation before an issue arises and any teaching about it becomes personalized.
I. Why Learn About Church Discipline?
Question: What are the benefits of studying and teaching on church discipline?
1. Because the Bible teaches it
This is not something thought up by legalistic control-freaks. Rather, it has divine warrant (Matthew 18:15-19). So important did the Reformers see church discipline that they included it as one of the marks of the church along with preaching and the sacraments.
2. Because every group of human beings needs an order
One Church order book puts it like this:
“Any institution or society which is to function effectively must be well-ordered: it must have recognised means of correcting aberrations which threaten its integrity. This is true pre-eminently of the Church of Jesus Christ, whose witness in the world depends so intimately on the godly behaviour of its members.” [footnote]Free Church of Scotland Book of Church Procedure: http://www.freechurch.org/pdf/practice/discipline.pdf. Accessed 11.14.2012.[/footnote]
3. Because we need to follow the order
As so many of the problems associated with church discipline arise from a lack of procedure, a failure to follow it, or an abuse of it, we must familiarize ourselves with the principles and the practice. Those who administer church discipline and those who are under the discipline of the church should know what to do and what to expect so that no one is taken by surprise and thinks they are being unfairly treated.
4. Because church discipline has many benefits
Listen to this comprehensive list of benefits from the Scottish Form of Process:
“Church discipline and censures are of great use and necessity in the Church, that the name of God, by reason of ungodly and wicked persons living in the Church, be not blasphemed, nor his wrath provoked against his people; that the godly be not leavened with but preserved from the contagion, and stricken with fear; and that sinners who are to be censured may be ashamed, to the destruction of the flesh and saving of the spirit in the day of the Lord Jesus.” [footnote]Free Church of Scotland, Form of Process 1.3: http://www.freechurch.org/pdf/practice/appendix4.pdf. Accessed 11.14.2012.[/footnote]
5. Because failure to/failings in discipline can have horrendous consequences.
If church discipline is not practiced, or if it is inconsistently or poorly practiced, it can destroy a ministry, a congregation, or even a denomination. Paul says that failure to discipline can result in congregational sickness and even death (1 Cor. 11:29-32). Jesus warns the church in Thyatira that His frown is upon them because of their failure to discipline a false teacher in their midst (Rev. 2:20-23).
6. Because it can prevent church discipline
We prevent church discipline by preaching, by regularly setting forth clear standards of Christian confession, character and conduct in our regular preaching ministry. Our flock needs to know where the fences are, where the no-go areas are, and what to expect if they cross them.
Second, we prevent church discipline by family visitation. We need to keep in close and regular contact with the sheep to gauge where they are in their walk with God. We may detect small changes in belief, attitude, spirit or character that can be addressed before they become big and irreversible problems.
However, no matter how well we teach and pastor, no matter how much we try to prevent it, church discipline problems are going to arise. It’s therefore best to prepare the congregation, and especially the office-bearers, before it arises.
That’s why I believe teaching on church discipline early here is a vital. Preaching a sermon on church discipline before a church discipline case arises is also helpful for avoiding the personalizing of the subject. Keeps everything objective.
7. Because it has a positive aim
The ultimate aim of church discipline is not punishment but restoration (Gal. 6:1). Robert Murray McCheyne describes how he came to see the value of church discipline despite his initial reluctance to practice it.
When I first entered upon the work of the ministry among you, I was exceedingly ignorant of the vast importance of church discipline. I thought that my great and almost only work was to pray and preach. I saw your souls to be so precious, and the time so short, that I devoted all my time, and care, and strength, to labour in word and doctrine. When cases of discipline were brought before me and the elders, I regarded them with something like abhorrence. It was a duty I shrank from; and I may truly say it nearly drove me from the work of the ministry among you altogether. But it pleased God, who teaches His servants in another way than man teaches, to bless some of the cases of discipline to the manifest and undeniable conversion of the souls of those under our care; and from that hour a new light broke in upon my mind, and I saw that if preaching be an ordinance of Christ, so is church discipline. I now feel very deeply persuaded that both are of God – that two keys are committed to us by Christ: the one the key of doctrine, by means of which we unlock the treasures of the Bible; the other the key of discipline, by which we open or shut the way to the sealing ordinances of the faith. Both are Christ’s gift, and neither is to be resigned without sin.[footnote]Andrew Bonar, Memoir & Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Banner of Truth: 1844/2004), 73.[/footnote]
II. How to Do Church Discipline
Question: How should I do church discipline?
Let’s take a closer look now at the practice of church discipline, with a focus not so much on the procedures and rules, but the attitude and spirit with which we go about this.
1. We need great love
Notice that the context for the church discipline passage in Matthew 18:15-19 is of caring for Christ’s little ones (vv. 1-10), and of the shepherd pursuing the lost sheep (vv. 11-14). We need a loving motive (to win back the brother or sister to Christ), and a loving manner – saying the right words in the right place at the right time. If at any time you find yourself lacking a loving motive and manner, it is time to pause and go no further as without love you will do a lot of damage. Remember, Christ says that if we offend one of His little ones, it would have been better for us to have a large millstone hung around our necks and we be cast into the sea (Matthew 18:6; c.f. v. 10).
2. We need great carefulness
Again I want to emphasize the need for extreme care in following the three step biblical process (Matthew 18:15-19) and however our particular church has understood this in its own particular circumstances.
The person making the complaint should first approach the offender. If that fails to result in repentance or adequate explanation, then the concerned person should ask an elder, the pastor, or a mature Christian to come with them to speak to the person. If that fails to produce the desired response, then the matter should be brought before all the elders.
The benefits of this three-step process are that the offended person is made to ask himself or herself, “Is this serious enough to warrant the next step?” The accused person is made to realize the increasing gravity of the matter. And witnesses to the earlier steps are able to testify to the church courts at the later stages if required.
But perhaps the greatest benefit is that it stops frivolous matters being brought before the elders, especially by those who lack the Christian love and courage to approach fellow Christians first before going public.
Of course, if the sin is public knowledge then the Matthew 18 instructions about private offenses does not necessarily apply. However, as some people whose sins are well known will still try to use non-compliance with Matthew 18 to criticize their pastor or church, it is often wise to at least try a private approach first.
Whatever we do, we must not abuse, shortcut or override the stated procedures, however tempted we are to do so. When some people are accused of sins, they train their sights on the procedures rather than their sin, and can easily turn the focus away from themselves, away from what they have done, and to what we have done or not done in the process.
Even when a discipline case is an open-and-shut case, you still have to patiently follow the standards you have set out. It may be that others in the church twist and pervert the rules against you, but your response should not be retaliation in kind.
Always remember you are acting ministerially, in the place of Christ. It is Christ’s place you are occupying and it is His authority you are exercising. Ask yourself, how would Christ act in these circumstances?
3. We need great courage
I don’t know any ministers or elders who look forward to church discipline. Surely most, if not all of us, have an aversion to the mental, emotional, and spiritual demands of dealing with sin in someone’s life. Most of us draw back. Some of us will do anything but deal with these situations. And often the motive is not love for the person, but fear of them, or of their family, or of the consequences in the congregation.
We need the Lord to give us courage to face sin, do something about sin, do it in the right way, persevere through the stress, effect appropriate sanctions (admonish, rebuke, censure, suspension, excommunication, etc.,), and to take appropriate actions.
4. We need great humility
If we could be humble enough to realize that we ourselves could fall into the worst sin (Gal. 6:1), it would give a much more loving flavor to all our attitudes and actions.
5. We need great wisdom
I’ve never been involved in a straightforward church discipline case. They have always involved complicating factors like counter-accusations, denials, excuses, lack of evidence, etc.
We need so much wisdom to know how to proceed, what questions to ask, where the truth lies, etc. How much we should be praying for the wisdom that God has promised to His perplexed people (James 1:5). Which brings us on to our next point.
6. We need great prayer
We often quote Matthew 18:19 about the Lord’s promised presence where two or three are gathered in His name. However, we often fail to realize that the immediate context is that of church discipline. It’s now people met in a weekly prayer meeting or worship service, but people met to exercise church discipline, and they do so with prayer and the promised presence of God’s Spirit.
We pray for prevention, but also for the love, courage, carefulness, humility, and wisdom in all that we say and do. We need help to be perfectly and consistently just, showing neither favoritism nor prejudice. And of course we pray for a successful outcome, where sin will be confessed, repented of, and the sinner is encouraged and helped to a more holy and useful life again.