Misconceptions About Church Discipline
The Lord wants holiness in His Church. He commands His Church to practice church discipline according to His Word. You often hear people reference Mt. 18 as if it were the only text in the New Testament that addresses church discipline. What many forget is that there is a small herd of texts that address church discipline, and the faithful shepherd will rope, corral, and sort them out (See Mt. 18:15-19; Acts 5:1-11; Rom. 16:17; I Cor. 5; Gal. 6:1; I Thess. 5:14-15; II Thess. 3:6-15; I Tim. 5:20; Titus 1:13; 3:10, 11; Rev. 2:2, 14,15, 20). In addition to the texts that speak directly to church discipline, there are even more texts that might be included in the list that speak of reproving, rebuking, exhorting, instructing, or admonishing an erring person who professes to be a Christian. Part of what it means to practice the one-anothers of the New Testament is to practice church discipline.
Another common misconception people have about church discipline is thinking God has a single purpose for it. A survey of the biblical texts above reveals at least five purposes. They can be broken down as follows: 1) to encourage a sinning brother or sister in Christ to repent, 2) to maintain purity in the church, 3) to cause those in the church to fear living in unrepentant sin, 4) to be a witness to the world of holiness and the seriousness of sin, and 5) to obey the Lord of the Church out of love. So yes, the restoration of someone who has hardened their heart and continued on in sin is one of the reasons to perform church discipline, but not the only reason. We must keep all the reasons in mind lest we find excuses for not performing church discipline or end up performing it incorrectly.
A final misconception about church discipline is that only the third step of “telling it to the church” is an act of church discipline. Yet every step of church discipline must be viewed as “performing church discipline” or people will be confused. The first step, one on one private, loving confrontation is an act of church discipline. The second step when two or three people lovingly confront the unrepentant person in private is again an act of church discipline. The fourth step of treating the unrepentant person as a gentile or tax collector is equally an act of church discipline. In a healthy church the bulk of church discipline ends in private and is never revealed to the church. A small percentage of church discipline cases reach the second step, and an even smaller percentage reaches the third and fourth steps. Every step is an act of church discipline.
The Abuse of Church Discipline
This short paper is not an attempt to address church discipline in any sort of comprehensive way. I merely wanted to point out some of the common misconceptions before getting to my purpose. My goal is to address the abuses of church discipline, which has led many churches to fear obeying the Lord’s instructions in this critical area. The world tries to scare people from disciplining their children in love, according to the Scriptures, by filming a half drunk father with a wife-beater tank top backhanding his child in anger. They label such abuse as an example of “corporal punishment” practiced by Christians. In a similar way, those who have suffered the abuse of church discipline are often tempted to reject the whole process as wrong, because of the abuses they have experienced.
Sadly, church discipline is often not performed according to the Scriptures. There are times when church discipline becomes an act of revenge, exasperation, or an excuse to hurt someone who doesn’t agree, or who is asking legitimate questions, or who won’t obey unbiblical edicts from controlling church leaders. Sometimes leaders in the church disagree on doctrines, interpretations of texts, or ministry philosophy. It is clear they can’t take the church in two different directions. They can’t teach two opposing views at the same time for it will destroy those who are weak in the faith. In order to make progress and move forward someone must humbly step down so that unity can exist around agreed upon doctrine and philosophy of ministry.
The leadership must be “of the same mind and same judgment” so that the congregation can be of the same mind and judgment (I Cor. 1:10; Phil. 1:27; Eph. 4:4-6). But having a different ministry philosophy, asking questions, or wanting answers for why the leadership is doing something isn’t a sin. The Apostle Paul praised the Bereans because they questioned his teachings, investigating the Scriptures to see if what Paul was teaching was biblical (Acts 17:11). He didn’t discipline them for questioning him, even though he was an Apostle, he praised them and held them up as examples to follow.
Without a doubt there are times when church leaders make bad decisions. They are fallible men and try as they might, they make well intentioned, but bad decisions by acting on incomplete information, failing to search the Scriptures, acting too hastily, or letting their emotions rather than the Word of God guide them. When this happens the solution is quite simple, they merely need to admit that they blew it, confess their sin, ask forgiveness of those they have hurt, and make a better second decision.
But men are proud. They often don’t want to admit they have failed. They sometimes get angry, vengeful, and seek to achieve unity in the church with the club of church discipline instead of humbly obeying the Word of God out of love. They set up their own inquisition and drive away all who dare question their authority. Sadly, it is often those who want to honor the Lord the most, who become targets of their wrath. Truth seekers become a thorn in the flesh to leaders who have something to hide. When you are in sin, holiness and truth are convicting and threaten to expose you. Sadly, those pushing for holiness and truth are often vilified as divisive, factious, and quickly disciplined out of the church without biblical warrant or procedure. This is why it is critical that we not bend, nor ignore, the criteria of elder qualifications (I Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).
Consequences Of Abusing Church Discipline
When church leaders abuse church discipline, the Holy Spirit is grieved (I Pet. 5:3), the sheep suffer (Jer. 10:21), and sin rather than holiness prevails. Leaders, above everyone else in the church are called upon to display the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23; Titus 2:7). Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control should be apparent in their lives. If it comes to the third public step of church discipline needing to be performed, leaders must make sure the entire process is done according to the Scriptures or great harm will result. The person entangled in sin must have been confronted lovingly and in private twice. Each time their specific sins must be addressed from the Scriptures. The person/s confronting must do so in love and humility. If the right thing is done, but with a wrong motive or attitude, the confronter is in sin too and just as much in need of repentance! If the third step of church discipline is needed, the leadership needs to do so in love, humility, and again, the unrepentant person’s sin, along with specific violations of the Scriptures need to be pointed out. The third step is where many churches fail to adhere to the Word of God.
The reason for “telling it to the church” (Mt. 18:17) is not for gossip, to heap scorn, to reject, or to be mean-spirited or nasty towards the person caught up in sin. The reason God says to “tell it to the church” is so the entire flock can reach out to the unrepentant sinner in love. The entire church needs to call, visit, write cards and notes expressing loving concern towards the individual and grief over their refusal to turn from their sin. It is the power of many loving people encouraging the unrepentant sinner to repent that dramatically increases the success of church discipline in turning a sinner from his way. The entire congregation should go after the person under discipline in order to talk to, encourage, and admonish them in gentleness to repent from the specific sins they are pursuing, while at the same time looking to themselves to make sure they aren’t being hypocrites as they do so (Mt. 7:1-5; Gal. 6:1).
Time must be given between each step for the person to repent (Rev. 2:21). This is especially true after the third step for the entire congregation must be given time to seek out the unrepentant sinner. After the entire congregation does their job, if the person still refuses to repent, the congregation is to be informed that the person is to be treated like a gentile or tax collector i.e., “as one despised” (Mt. 18:17). Gentiles and tax collectors were the most despised people in society. Gentiles were despised because they worshiped pagan deities. Tax collectors were despised because they plundered the people, extorting more money out of them than Rome required. Having gone through every step, if a person still refuses to repent, they are to be treated as an unbeliever who doesn’t know God, needs the gospel, and who knowing the truth has rejected the Lord and His church. They are not merely to be treated as an unbeliever; for we would willingly allow unbelievers to attend our worship services in hopes they might hear the gospel and be saved. No, there is to be a continual excommunication, a shunning by the church, until the unrepentant person repents. Thus the only contact the church would extend to the person who refuses to repent after every step has been carried out would be evangelistic in nature.
The Critical Fork In The Road
When church leaders fail to obey the Scriptures when performing church discipline and then are confronted by someone in the congregation or even the person they have disciplined that they have erred, it forces the leadership to a critical fork in the road. Will they humble themselves, confess their sin, and repent to the congregation and the person they have sinned against or will they act in pride, harden their hearts, fear men, compound their sin, and hide what they have done?
When the leadership does not take the path of humility and confession, and they refuse to own up to their own sins, their motives quickly shift away from glorifying God and loving their sheep. Instead of promoting holiness in the fear of God and seeking what is best for the flock of God, they seek to protect themselves. The fear of being found out often causes leaders with something to hide to become heavy handed. Instead of acting slowly and patiently in love to promote holiness in the church, according to the Word of God, they act rashly in anger and revenge. They modify, twist, or ignore the Scriptures in order to protect themselves. The purposes of church discipline are completely ignored. The motives of church leaders who are trying to hide their sins are selfish, and desperation makes them act harshly.
This is especially true if the sins of the leadership are severe or if they have been ignored for a long time. As they live in unconfessed sin, grieving the Holy Spirit, they are plagued with guilt, but they fear coming clean because they themselves are living in unconfessed sin. They know that if anyone found out, they would be disqualified from leadership. Thus they find unity in trying to protect themselves, dealing harshly with those who might expose them.
Indicators That The Leaders May Be Hiding In Sin
When the leadership of the church is in sin and has something to hide, certain indicators are usually present. Guilty leadership often treat as an enemy anyone who disagrees with them or seeks to humbly confront them in the fruit of the Spirit. Sternness, warnings, and threatenings are apparent, not love, care, and concern. The sheep become scared of the leadership, not the Lord. Leaders in sin will often quickly condemn godly individuals who ask questions, labeling them as “divisive,” “contentious,” “factious,” and “causing disunity among the brothers.” Truth and holiness end up being turned upside down and the congregation often has no way of knowing which end is up.
Another common indicator that leadership is in sin is when they impose gag orders. The Scriptures never prescribes placing gag orders on anyone, either the entire church or individuals being disciplined. Paul does tell Titus in Tit. 1:10-16 that some people need “silenced.” But notice the kind of person being described and how "silencing" is to be accomplished:
“10 For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, 11 who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain. 12 One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. For this reason reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth. 15 To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled. 16 They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed.”
An openly rebellious unbeliever is to be silenced by severe reproof (vs. 13). Notice the congregation is not told to ignore them or not speak to them. When it is evident to all that a person is an unbelieving false teacher, deceptive, and upsetting entire families, etc., the leadership of the church are called upon to take quick action and shorten the discipline process to protect the sheep. In my 25 years of ministry I have only seen two or three cases that fit this category. The entire church knew about the person’s sin, it was evident the offender didn’t know the Lord, and people were getting hurt. Titus 1:15 does not give church leadership permission to deal harshly and swiftly with a person who does not fit the description of an unbelieving false teacher who is destroying the church. If a person shows themselves to be false teacher, a deceiver, who is causing an imminent threat to the church, yes, they must be dealt with swiftly, and severely, but still in love and humility.
In normal church discipline cases, when the third step is necessary, the entire church is told so they can mobilize and go talk to the person in sin. Leaders who impose gag orders, threaten people with discipline for asking questions, talking about what has happened, or talking to the person being disciplined are leaders who have wandered far from the Word of God. Surely gag orders and threats are the tactics of desperate men with sin in their own lives. The Scriptures don’t prescribe Nazi propaganda and information control tactics in the form of gag orders.
Another sign that something is amiss among the leadership is when they aim for character assassination rather than dealing with specific sins addressed from specific Scriptures in the Bible. They might bring up issues long dealt with as if they are current issues of ongoing unrepentant sin in order to increase the weight of their character assassination. It has nothing to do with lovingly shepherding the flock. Half-truths are told with critical facts left out in order to create an unjust and false impression of the person being disciplined. By assassinating a person’s character they hope to discredit the person, discourage people from talking to them, and this is how they “handle” the congregation to decrease their chances of being exposed.
Men of truth have nothing to hide. They don’t fear examination or even the need to confess their own sin. It is true they can’t divulge confidential information about a person. However, once something becomes public, it is open to public discussion. Leaders who are humbly obeying the truth in love do not fear examination, dialogue, discussion, or explaining themselves. “Just trust us” isn’t enough if there is evidence that the leadership is untrustworthy. Proverbs 18:17 reminds us, "The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him." Beware of those who seek to control information so that you only hear their side of the story. Beware of those who become heavy handed when you seek to expose things hidden in darkness (Eph. 5:11-14). Those who walk in the light do not fear being examined by the light.
Church leaders are responsible to shepherd the flock, but their authority begins and ends with the Word of God. They have no authority outside the authority of Scripture.
If the leadership of a local church neglects to obey the Word of God themselves, they have no authority to discipline anyone out of the church until they themselves repent. The Scriptures require that leaders who continued in sin be “rebuked in the presence of all” so that the entire congregation will know they are not to be followed anymore as leaders and so the congregation will be fearful of continuing in any sin themselves, seeing that even the leadership is not exempt from rebuke (I Tim. 5:20).
Long Term Consequences of Unconfessed Sin Among The Leadership
The long-term consequences of unconfessed sin in the leadership and the abuse of church discipline is that the sheep suffer. The flock of God is not cared for by loving shepherds. Instead the congregation is controlled by fear and intimidation. Those needing counsel become fearful of confiding in the leadership. If leaders remain in sin, “Ichabod” will be upon that church until they repent and humbly step down (1 Sam. 4:21-22). Holiness will decline when those leading the church are not holy themselves. The church will continue to suffer. In some cases Jesus will remove a church’s lamp-stand and make war against a church with corrupt leadership. As a result the church will become liberal and/or die (Rev. 2:5, 16).
What Should You Do When The Leadership Abuses Church Discipline?
First, don’t fear men; fear God (Lk. 12:4-5). If the congregation fears the leadership something is terribly wrong. Yet it is still necessary to seek holiness, truth, and what is best for the church and the glory of God. Listen to what the Apostle Peter says in I Pet. 3:13-17:
13 Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, 15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; 16 and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. 17 For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.
Peter gives us very clear instruction and wisdom for dealing with fearful situations. Pray, pray, pray and seek to follow the Word of God. Study the Scriptures and humbly ask the leadership questions. Yes, you too may be disciplined out of the church, but as Peter instructs, don’t fear their intimidation. You don’t need to know all the gory details, but ask the leadership if the Scriptures were followed and how they were followed. They won’t be able to divulge confidential information, but they can verify that the biblically prescribed steps were followed in love, and time was given in between each step, so that the person could have time to repent.
Question all gag orders and ask for scriptural justification. If they try to twist the Scriptures to justify imposing gag orders, show them from the context of whatever text they attempt to use why the Bible doesn’t give church leadership permission to enforce gag orders. Direct their attention to well-respected commentaries if necessary. Encourage the leadership to repent to the person/s they have harmed and to the congregation as a whole, if they have violated the Word of God, so that God can bless the church. Always get the other side of the story. Heavy handed, mean spirited, vindictive, or vengeful church discipline isn’t right—ever! Don’t turn a blind eye and deaf ear to such abuses. Be kind, be gentle, walk in the Spirit, but don’t ever ignore any sin in the church, especially from the leadership.
Men of truth will be known by their deeds. They will be men who have labored to faithfully teach, preach, counsel, and shepherd the flock. They will be men who care for the sheep, who invite people into their homes and show hospitality, who have a history of laboring for the spiritual health of the sheep. Though there is always opposition to men who preach the truth, true believers thrive under the ministries of faithful shepherds; they don’t cringe from them in fear. Faithful shepherds are men of prayer, wise counsel, love, and gentleness. Jesus said you will know true, God-glorifying leaders by their fruit (Mt. 7:15-20). Those leaders that scatter the sheep, rather than shepherd them, are a grief to God and God's people (Jer. 23:1-2).
I will close with a quote from Richard Baxter, famous for his biblical counsel and wisdom. Baxter speaking of strife and contention in the church said:
“If we saw God, and heaven, and hell before us, do you think it would not effectually reconcile our differences, and heal our unkind exasperations and divisions? Would it not hold the hands that itch to be using violence against those that are of a different opinion? What abundance of vain controversies would it reconcile! As the coming in of the school master instantly settles contention among schoolboys, so the sight of God should frighten us from contentious or uncharitable violence toward one another.”
May God spare His sheep from heavy-handed leaders who use church discipline in ungodly ways to protect themselves, control, and manipulate His flock!
 Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter: Volume XII (London: James Duncan, 1830), 43.