The Methodist theologian William Burt Pope, following the Protestant tradition, identified church discipline as one of three marks of a true church (along with the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments). Church discipline is vital to church health. A local body without church discipline is like a physical body without an immune system: it’s bound to be unhealthy.
Sadly, however, the church has at times abused its authority, so the word “discipline” evokes a negative visceral response in most. In a wounded world, where physical, mental, and sexual abuse has been carried out in the name of discipline, it is difficult to imagine how church discipline could be good news. Here are a few practical suggestions for talking about church discipline in a wounded world.
Gentle Church Discipline
1. Frequently add “gentle” when you use the phrase: speak of “gentle church discipline” (Galatians 6:1). Gentleness is the primary fruit of the Spirit that is associated with church discipline in Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” This little word “gentle” can help people to process the idea that church discipline isn’t inherently bad, it just needs to be handled with care. Like a hammer, which can be used to build shelters for the weak or hit them over the head, church discipline can be used for building up or tearing down, and abuse doesn’t take away proper use.
2. Teach on the good news of God’s discipline in Hebrews 12, a key passage, and make the connection to church discipline: the church is the instrument through which God ordinarily disciplines his children; therefore, church discipline should be good news too, even though it’s not always pleasant for the moment. I think it’s safe to say that I refer to Hebrews 12 more than any other chapter in the Bible. We hear a lot about “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14), but rarely about the thirteen verses that come before it and clarify its meaning. We strive for holiness as we submit to God’s fatherly discipline, which assures us that we are his sons. Gentle church discipline assures us that we are part of the family of God, and it means that we don’t have to struggle alone in the fight against sin (Heb. 12:4).
Gentle church discipline assures us that we are part of the family of God, and it means that we don’t have to struggle alone in the fight against sin.
3. Do not give up the word “discipline,” but it’s helpful to use “restoration” as a synonym for some kinds of discipline, especially if you familiarize the church with another phrase that I like: “restorative church discipline.” Other helpful adjectives include “redemptive,” “transformational,” “affirmative,” “sanctifying,” or “formative” (see the next point). I flesh this out in an article on “Bearing One Another’s Burdens: Towards Restorative Covenant Communities.” See also David Fry’s article “What if a Believer Sins? Restoration and the Church’s Role in Salvation.”
Discipl-eship and Discipl-ine
4. Explain the connection between “discipl-eship” and “discipl-ine,” and that most discipline is not punitive (pertaining to punishment); rather, most church discipline is formative — like when we “discipline” by exhorting the saints through the preached word (formal) or in private mentoring relationships (informal). This is also discussed in the article linked above.
5. I like to use “accountable discipleship” as a synonym for “church discipline.” Here’s a lesson title idea: “Church Discipline: Accountable Discipleship.” Thankfully, we hear a lot about accountability these days; making this association helps to create a positive connection that breaks down some of the barriers to a healthy understanding of church discipline. Healthy church discipline involves mutual discipleship support and accountability.
Healthy church discipline involves mutual discipleship support and accountability.
The Family Context
6. Contextualize the topic of discipline within the set of biblical images that it is a subset of and function of. These include
- The family — Church discipline means that we are part of a family in which we are our brother’s keeper and fellow learners, called to instruct one another (Heb. 3:13), admonish one another (Col. 3:16), encourage one another (Heb. 10:25), submit to one another (Eph. 5:21), and restore one another (Gal. 6:1).
- The church — Church discipline means that we are an assembly covenanted together for mutual edification, encouragement, support, and covenantal faithfulness. Church discipline means that we don’t follow Jesus alone; we belong to a discipleship community.
- The flock — Church discipline means that we are sheep nurtured and guided by the Chief Shepherd and those whom he has appointed as his undershepherds.
- The body — Church discipline means that we are members one of another, called to use our gifts for mutual healing and upbuilding (Eph. 4:12–16; 1 Cor. 12; Rom. 12:3–8).
We can’t avoid the subject of church discipline. It’s biblical, and it’s essential to a healthy church. But in a world that’s been wounded by abuses of authority (see A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Redeeming Power by Diane Langberg), even within the church, we need to take great care in the way that we introduce and discuss this crucial topic.