When I was a doctoral student at Southwestern Seminary, I took Dr. Leon McBeth’s seminar on the History of American Christianity. During the seminar one of my classmates, Gary Snowden, presented a research paper on the history of church discipline in the SBC. He explained that while church discipline was quite common in the 1800s, in the twentieth century it had declined considerably. Of course, we asked him about the reason for the decline. He said that he could document the decline, but his research did not reveal the reason for it. The students speculated that overuse, improper motives, and legal concerns had all contributed to the decline; however, we never arrived at a conclusion.
In recent years the SBC has experienced a resurgence of interest in church discipline, both in publication and practice. I believe it is fair to attribute this resurgence to 9Marks Ministries. Mark Dever has spoken and written on church discipline on many occasions, and the January issue of the 9Marks Journal focuses on church discipline.
Most would agree that church discipline is both biblical and necessary. Several New Testament passages address church discipline. Jesus gave instructions about the procedure for church disciple in Matthew 18:15-17: “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 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” (NASB). In these verses Jesus prescribes a three-level approach to disciplining a wayward brother—one church leader goes alone; several church leaders go together; and the matter is brought to the church.
The Apostle Paul also wrote about church discipline. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul rebukes the church at Corinth for not disciplining a member who was cohabiting with his step-mother. It seems the church obeyed Paul, because in 2 Corinthians 2:4-8 Paul instructs them to restore the disciplined and repentant brother. Other passages that pertain to church discipline include Galatians 6:1 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6.
I’ve spent most of my ministry as a foreign missionary, but during my years in the USA, I have been the interim pastor of ten churches and pastor of one. In my experience most matters of church discipline were resolved on the first level—I, or an associate pastor, spoke with the member about his or her fault. The member accepted the reproof, and few, if any, knew discipline had been practiced. In one case, though, the deacons called me to a special meeting and asked me how to do church discipline. I explained the procedure outlined in Matthew 18. We followed the procedure, and it went all the way to a vote by the church. The church voted to approve the deacons’ recommendation, and the member was disciplined.
In his article in the 9Marks Journal (https://www.9marks.org/article/dont-do-it-why-you-shouldnt-practice-church-discipline) Mark Dever makes several helpful suggestions to pastors who want to begin implementing church discipline. First, he writes that the pastor must educate his congregation about church discipline. Most members know nothing about it, and they’ve never been part of a church that practices it. So, they need to understand what the Bible says about it. Second, he teaches that humility must infuse the process. Third, he insists that the pastor must bathe the process in prayer. Fourth, he recommends that the church constitution, by-laws, and covenant be modified, if necessary. And, fifth, he exhorts his readers to preach regularly on the nature of the Christian life and the responsibilities of church membership.
I am not a crusader for church discipline, but it was neglected for too long. Beyond that, if we claim to be New Testament churches, then our churches should practice it. I would make these suggestions about it. First, the purpose of discipline should be redemptive, not punitive. That is, the purpose is to move the person to repent. You might think of it as spiritual shock therapy. You’re trying to bring the person to repent and change. Second, we should devote ourselves to preventative discipline. We can do that by ensuring that our members are thoroughly discipled. Good discipleship training will help prevent discipline problems. Third, a modern and meaningful church covenant provides the basis for discipline. If all your members agree to live according to the church covenant, then you have an objective measure for evaluating their behavior.
I wonder what experiences you have had with church discipline. What are your opinions about this practice?