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The Church: Does it Matter 3 (Mary Veeneman)

Another post from my colleague, Mary Veeneman, based on a book by Harper and Metzger. Let’s hear what you are thinking about church discipline.

When I was in college, I had a professor who had previously
been a full-time pastor.  In a
discussion on ecclesiology one day in class, the subject of church discipline
came up
.  Our professor told us
that in the church he had led as pastor that he would contact the former church
of anyone who sought membership in his church who had not recently moved to the
area to ensure that no one was seeking a new church to avoid the discipline of
another church.  When asked how
other churches responded, he told us that more often than not, the pastors of
other churches seemed to be annoyed to have to take the time to answer the


What do you think? 
Have evangelicals neglected church discipline? Do you think churches should practice church discipline? Have you seen it work effectively?  If so, what should it look like?  What solution (if any) is there to the problem of

His point was that evangelical churches often do not do
church discipline well if we do it at all
.  This is the same point made by Bruce Harper and Paul Louis
Metzger in Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction‘s chapter on church discipline.  The
authors begin their discussion by explaining the development of church
discipline across the history of the church.



In the earliest period of church history, questions were
raised about whether any sins committed after one’s baptism could be
forgiven.  Many in the early church
believed that they could not, and this led to many, including the Emperor
Constantine to receive baptism only when death seemed imminent.  Eventually, the idea of penance and
restoration to the church became more prevalent.  Starting as a way to readmit those to the Church who had
renounced the Christian faith or in some other way betrayed the church in the
face of Roman persecution, over the next several centuries, a system grew up
where one could enter the order of the penitents, carry out a penance that
would often last several years, and eventually re-enter the church.  While this was originally only
permitted once in one’s lifetime, eventually a system of confession and penance
rose for all kinds of sins whether grave, mortal sins or venial sins. 



In the pre-Reformation church, church discipline was
universal.  Harper and Metzger
point out that if one was excommunicated in that period of time it was
universal.  After the Reformation
with the fracturing of Protestantism, they argue evangelicals often respond to
church discipline (when it is even carried out) by simply going to the next
church down the road. 


Essentially, Harper and Metzger identify two key problems.  First, they note that although the New
Testament is clear that churches do need to carry out discipline at times, the
lack of specifics as to how this is to be done often results in churches
neglecting this mandate.  Second,
they note that because of the fragmentation within evangelicalism, church
discipline is easily ignored. 
Those who find themselves under discipline can simply go to the
evangelical church down the street.


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posted July 15, 2009 at 7:27 am

“Those who find themselves under discipline can simply go to the evangelical church down the street.”
This is especially easy in megachurches in which one can blend in with little problem, and in which the church leadership may have have its hands full with so many people. (I am not knocking megachurches- I attend one)
Membership, or lack thereof, is another part of the issue here. The post mentioned the pastor dealing with those seeking membership. However, people can, and do, attend churches for years without becoming active members. They can get much out of the life of the church without officially “signing on”. The early church had quite an extensive program for those seeking membership. That is no longer the case, nor even an issue, for many today.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 9:07 am

I’m not a litigator generally, though I occasionally handle disputes connected to estates or business matters in my law practice. I’ve had several matters now where the parties on both sides were professing Christians. On at least two occasions I attempted to move the parties towards having the offending party’s church be involved. In one of the occasions, I couldn’t get the other party (who taught sunday school at a large prominant church) to agree to bring anyone of her choosing from her church in as a mediator, no doubt because her conduct was hateful. On the second occasion, a man had met my elderly disabled clients through church and defrauded them of the bulk of the equity of their home. I contacted the head pastor of this church, a rather large one locally, to ask if this person was on the church membership roles and about disciplining him if so. He was, and this pastor was fully aware of this man doing very similar things before and was exasperated with him. However, he was also unwilling to call this man on his conduct, privately or publicly, or remove him from the membership roles.
It is honestly hard for me to even write these things without starting to get angry again. In my experience, Christians, churches, even pastors, as a general rule have no intention of getting involved in these matters and have no concept of how to do so wisely and effectively if they did. The evangelical church is so paralyzed by any charge of legalism or works-salvation, no matter how unbiblical, that this ministry of reconciliation between people has been abandoned. I don’t think we know how to fit discipline into our predominant version of the gospel, so we’ve let it go.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 10:04 am

When I go to a church, I enter as a sinner looking to worship my God. If, before I enter the sanctuary, I see a pile of bloodstained stones in the foyer, I can assume they are not for construction or a new addition.
If I am seeking membership, it is after a time of examining that church’s stated policies and procedural workings. If I want to join I submit freely to them. If a “background and sinning history check” is done on the sly, well, some rocks are known to boomerang quite accurately.
There is no anonymity before God, but there is Grace. Perhaps we should emulate the One who called us in the first place.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 10:22 am

I should add, to answer the questions, though, I am convinced church discipline can work precisely for the reasons that the people I mentioned wanted to avoid it. Just having other people, who profess to follow Jesus with you, know about a sinful course of action can be enough to produce repentance. Matthew 18, I Cor 5 & 6, and II Cor, though, lay out a gracious, but effective pattern to correct a sinning believer. I think that had the sunday school teacher I was dealing with been willing to have her church involved, the matter would have resolved much more quickly and graciously than it was. She already knew she was behaving badly and having a trusted voice confirm it would have likely ended it. If the pastor and church of the man who was committing fraud had publicly put him out of the church for his prior conduct, my clients may never have been defrauded, either due to his repentance or reputation or both. But to start doing this in most evangelical churches, it would be antithetical to what we’ve said the gospel is, what a Christian is, and what a church is. We probably need to start the adjustments there to create a context in which specific correction can make sense. It’s actually not love that would lead a church community to turn a blind eye to seriously harmful conduct by its members.
Plus, the alternative is to leave all this work to secular courts and the legal profession and the attached systems, the very thing Paul was so upset about in I Corinthians 6. Churches, please, give Christian lawyers looking to follow scripture a hand–I have yet to have a church even be willing to help in these matters when they reach my office.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 10:26 am

I think that if everyone was as open, humble, and God-focussed as you are, then this wouldn’t even be a topic.
The truth is, that one of the pastor’s jobs is to watch for wolves among the sheep. Another is to keep sheep from straying. The shepherds tools are the rod and the staff.
God is graceful. And His call for us to repent and turn to him for forgiveness is clear. We do no favors to those who would deny sin, and bypass their chance for repentance by skipping from church to church to church to avoid accountability.
There are overly legalistic and controlling churches to be sure. There should be discernment by the individual and by the pastor making the call. Grace and love must permeate everything. But if I read between the lines, you think that such a call to a former church cannot be rooted in love and grace. I think that not only must they be, but that true love for the individual demands such a call be placed.

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Joel M

posted July 15, 2009 at 11:12 am

I’ve seen church discipline work properly only once: a pastor caught in ongoing sexual sin was removed from his position from the church, but also given clear boundaries and guidelines for restoration within the body. This included being required to live in a communal setting in a family’s home and weekly meetings with leaders within the church. There was an ongoing sense of grace throughout the entire process, but the church leadership was quite firm about their expectations and was in communication with other churches in the area about the issue.
Also, the author is Brad Harper, not Bruce. I took an ecclesiology class in college with Harper; it changed my entire view of the church.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 11:18 am

Doesn’t the reformation view of imputation of Christ’s righteousness and our total depravity contribute to the lack of church discipline? If I am still a total sinner who cant help myself but am given Christ’s righteousness in return for faith, than what motivation do work at gaining victory over my sin? Why would I need to go through discipline?

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Jeremy Berg

posted July 15, 2009 at 12:14 pm

The internet monk asked a related question this week on his podcast:
“If evangelicals are not addressing the sinful behavior of people within their own congregation (cohabitation among unmarrieds, premarital sex among teens, etc.), than isn’t it a bit strange to be spending so much time addressing the behavior of homosexuals no where near their church?”
I thought it was a good challenge. It’s far easier to discuss such matters in the abstract, but much more difficult to practice and live out in the messiness of real relationships with real people.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 2:55 pm

The real problem is lack of true community relationships. How can “the church” discipline someone with whom there is no relationship? Not to infantilize Christians, but if I might use parenting as a metaphor… A parent cannot effectively discipline a child with whom there is no relationship. The relationship of love, respect, and caring is the foundation of discipline. Also, God disciplines those he LOVES. A church, or even people within the church, cannot presume to “discipline” someone until they have established a loving relationship with that person. It is my experience that many, many people have a shallow relationship with “the Church” in general, and few intimate, community-like relationships with the individuals who make up the church. How then, can any discipline take place?
Focusing on building true community, a web of loving relationships, should be the first concern of church leadership. Discipline can follow.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 3:51 pm

I currently serve in church leadership and am not at all satisfied with how we handle conflict. Having recently been part of asking someone to not come back to our church until they were willing to meet certain conditions, I have had to deal with those who were close to the individual question how we could do such a thing if we’re a church about loving others (part of our mission statement that gets used against us when it’s convenient). Church discipline is hard because the Church is part of the larger culture in which people do not want to take responsibility for their actions. We’re also a consumer culture, so if I don’t like your decision, I can take my marbles and go elsewhere. Or, like other unhealthy folks, I can stay in the church and wreak havoc. Since it is prescribed in scripture, I believe it is something that should be practiced, but how to do it and do it well, is the question. Not only does it require great prayer and discernment, it takes strong leaders who are willing to back up their actions and take an incredible amount of heat. In the end, we must be more dedicated to protecting the flock then cow-towing to a few vocal critics. Otherwise, we let the other side win.

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posted July 16, 2009 at 1:49 am

Handling conflicts and church discipline clearly figure in both Jesus’ words (Matt. 5, 7, 18, etc.) and in Paul’s (T’s example of 1 Cor. 6, plus 1 Cor. 5, Gal. 6, etc.). The goal of any discipline is restoration of relationships. Church leaders too frequently have their own stuff that they’re hiding from others, and many have no accountability partners to continue maturing in Christ through their own valleys of darkness and temptation. Peacemaker Ministries ( was formed out of Christian attorneys and the Christian Legal Society’s concern that bringing our conflicts into secular courts harms or destroys our testimony to those who watch, and within the participants. Their training arm, the Institute for Christian Conciliation, teaches biblical conflict coaching, mediation, arbitration, church conflict intervention, and marital mediation, for attorneys, pastors, and peace-loving laity. Although many leaders at PM/ICC are complementarian and I’m egalitarian (!!), we respect one another’s integrity and Christian witness.
I sit on a board of a local conciliation ministry (using ICC-trained bibilical conciliators) and we’ve all witnessed the power of Christ through loving discipline and the Word. Yet, it never ceases to sadden us how many Christian leaders and their congregants don’t have the faith to believe that God is still God in/through the fires of conflict, so they cut and run, or attack, or slander, or hide, or lie, or give up. Christian leaders need to model a different way, the path Christ took through conflict – fearless truth-telling and loving grace.
Love includes discipline. Love without discipline and a call to holiness is an unholy desire to be liked and approved according to the flesh. Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together, clearly spells the consequences of those who form community on any other foundation than Christ alone. The fruits of the Spirit cannot be fully formed in the flesh.
I’ve personally witnessed how a major denomination preferred secular mediation over Christian mediation even when a secular business GM (a friend) asked specifically if they’d prefer the Christian mediation/arbitration, another major denomination’s judicatory’s flippant dismissal of their own Constitutional disciplinary procedures, and pastors/leaders who laugh at the Bible and their denominational documents when approached to handle conflict appropriately.
But, I’ve also witnessed healing and restoration in families, in Christian ministries, in marriages, among Christian business partners, and even between folks who’d been defrauded and those who’d committed fraud. God reigns!
The church misses such an incredible opportunity to confront our own sins openly, to become the living, walking, and dancing words of Romans 5:1-5, to testify through our own weaknesses how strong God is to heal the wounds, build us, unify and restore us, if only we won’t avoid conflict and run away from discipline.
We sorely need more leaders who humbly model this courage and faith in Christ, so that church members may have the path to follow! There are quite many, but we need *lots* more!

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