One of the most important and difficult tasks a pastor must undertake is leading his congregation to understand and obey what the Bible says about church discipline. The widespread neglect of the practice can cause even faithful Christians to be fearful of the idea. When biblical texts that give instruction on the subject are introduced it is not uncommon to hear responses that border on panic. “This will split the church.” “So then only perfect people can be members?” “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” “I’ve been a Christian for ___ (20, 30, 40, etc.) years and have never heard of this, so why are you bringing it up now?”
Such fears can only be overcome by leading people to trust the Lord and His Word. The authority and sufficiency of Scripture are foundational not only to restoring the practice of church discipline but to every matter of faith and work in the Christian life. On that foundation the specific texts on the nature of the church and the steps of discipline must be simply and plainly taught.
To introduce church discipline I would begin with the classic passage on the subject found in Matthew 18:15-20. Any church that obeys Jesus’ words will find that most sin in the church will be effectively dealt with in private as brothers and sisters give and receive correction as they help each other follow Christ together. Repentance and forgiveness will characterize relationships—which is exactly the way life together in the body of Christ is supposed to work.
When such private efforts fail and the offender continues in sin without repentance, the matter must be told to the church. Only if he refuses to heed the admonitions of the church is he to be removed from membership, not as an act of punishment but as an expression of love for his soul and with the hope and prayer that he will come to his senses and be restored through repentance.
Other passages (such as 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, Titus 3:10, Romans 16:17-18, 2 Thessalonians 3:13-15, etc.) must also be taught in the context of how redeemed sinners live together in repentance and forgiveness. Addressing such issues might well be uncomfortable, especially when doing so exposes areas of neglect in the life of the church. But God’s Word is good for us and following His commandments bring spiritual joy and life.
The real difficulty in church discipline, however, is not so much in knowing what to do or even how to do it. The hardest part of church discipline is in the actual administering of it. It is painful. There is no easy way to confront a brother in his sin. If he persists, there is no easy way to take one or two others with you to confront him again. If he still refuses to repent, there is no easy way to tell it to the church, and if he refuses to hear “even” the church, it is absolutely excruciating to remove him from membership–to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
Coming to terms with the fact that there simply is no easy way to carry out these steps has been one of the most sobering yet helpful lessons that I have learned as a pastor. When leading a church to take the final step of discipline certain questions always lurk in the shadows, “Isn’t there another way? Is there anything more that we can do to avoid this?” They are provoked, I think, out of a proper desire to avoid taking the most serious step a church can take in dealing with a person’s soul. By reconciling myself to the fact that doing what Christ commands in such a case is unavoidably painful, and by teaching the church to view it that way, we are encouraged not to shrink back from our duty but to take up this cross with a view to God’s glory and the welfare of the wayward member.
In his kindness, I have had the privilege of seeing the fruit of church discipline born out not only in the restoration of brothers and sisters who have submitted to it but also in the strengthening of the church in the fear of the Lord and in the conversion of unbelievers. I fully identify with the following words of Robert Murray M’Cheyne as he describes his own pastoral grappling with the exercise of church discipline.
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.