Five Lessons Learned from Practicing Church Discipline
I’ve been pastoring for over ten years now, and I believe in practicing church discipline with all my heart. But church discipline has been one of the greatest sorrows and griefs of my pastoral experience. I do not like practicing church discipline, but I believe in doing it because Christ commands it (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; Galatians 6:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:13-14), and because it is one of the ways pastors are called to love and serve the church. The Second London Baptist Confession rightly says, “He has given [churches] all that power and authority, which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he has instituted for them to observe” (26.7). For several years at my church, it seemed as though we had one case of church discipline after another. Here are some of the lessons I have learned in the practice of church discipline.
1. I’m a greater sinner than I knew.
I wasn’t prepared for the anger I felt when I saw a particular man destroying his family. I didn’t expect the fear I felt when he threatened me. I needed to remember the greatness of my own sin and the greatness of God’s grace before I could faithfully minister the grace of the gospel to him. I’m convinced that love is the key to faithfully practicing church discipline. I’ll confess it is hard for me to love hardened sinners who have destroyed their consciences and refuse to listen to the truth. It’s hard for me to feel genuine compassion for someone who is abusing his family. But it’s only hard because of the remaining sin in my own heart. When I see my own sin and realize that I could be just as hard-hearted as the worst of sinners, and when I see that the only thing keeping me from unrepentant sin is God’s great grace toward me in Christ, only then can I speak the truth in genuine love and sincerely feel compassion and longing for the souls of hardened sinners. Christ calls pastors to be loving shepherds who deal firmly with those who endanger the flock, but always to do so while bearing the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, just as Jesus did, while He hung on the cross.
2. Anyone can fall into great sin.
I always knew theologically that anyone can fall into gross sin. David, a man after God’s own heart, fell into terrible sin with Bathsheba, and then he murdered her husband. Paul said, “Demas, in love with the present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10). But I wasn’t prepared for one of my own friends to abandon Christ. He was training for pastoral ministry. He was eager to learn the Word of God. I knew he had some youthful pride, but at the time, I didn’t think it was that serious. He loved to read great theological works and talk about them with me and his friends. He spoke much of grace and salvation in Jesus. He preached in our pulpit several times, and the people gave him good feedback. Many responded to his ministry. We met and prayed together often. But then one day, this man completely abandoned Christ. It happened overnight, or so it seemed to me. One day, he stopped coming to church, and he said he didn’t believe in God and he didn’t love his wife and was going to divorce her. I went to his house to try to reach out to him, and he demanded that I leave immediately. He got in my face and threatened me with his body language. Then, I had to do one of the hardest and saddest things I’ve ever had to do in the ministry. I had to lead our church to discipline my friend. It felt like I was betraying him, but not to do it would have been betraying both Christ and my friend. We then tried to minister to his wife and two children. I still miss him and love him and pray for him often. Anyone can fall into sin.
3. It’s possible to move too quickly or too slowly.
Earlier on in my ministry, I always said we should move slowly in discipline. If we err, we should err on the side of grace and caution. And while I still believe that in principle, I now also believe it is possible to move too slowly in the discipline process. Some sins are deeply harmful to other people, doing damage in the home and the church. The Bible teaches that sin can spread like leaven (1 Corinthians 5:6), and it must be dealt with before it does too much harm. At times I have been willing to wait too long before handling a case of persistent, hardened, unrepentant sin, and people were hurt. I’ve learned experientially that pastors are not only called to protect sinning members of the congregation but also those who are being sinned against. Determining how quickly to press forward in the steps of church discipline may be the most difficult thing about pastoral ministry for me. If I press for discipline among the other pastors and the church too quickly, I may not give enough time to repent. If I move too slowly, people can be hurt. It’s one of the things that sometimes keeps me awake at night.
4. Pastors need to know the whole counsel of God.
Pastoral ministry is not for everyone. The office of elder should never be thought of as a rotating position in which all the men in the church may serve. God calls pastors to deal with the souls and lives of His beloved people, which means they need to know the whole counsel of God so they can apply it wisely to particular sins and particular circumstances. To do this, every elder must thoroughly understand the Bible as a whole and he must understand how it all points sinners to Jesus Christ. An elder needs to understand the Bible’s theology for himself first, so that he is a loving and compassionate man before he can apply it to others. He needs to know the relationship between the law and the gospel, which is rooted in the great biblical-theological covenants of works, redemption, and grace. And he needs to know these doctrines practically so that he can treat the various diseases of sin as they infect the hearts of men. Pastors have to know the whole Bible so that they can make wise decisions about how to proceed in church discipline, while avoiding both authoritarianism and harmful passivity. If men are permitted to join an eldership who do not understand the whole counsel of God, such that they themselves are loving, gracious men, and know how to apply the law and the gospel to others, they can do great harm to Christ’s sheep.
5. A full pastoral ministry is vitally important.
A member of another church once said, “Our pastors only show up when we’re in trouble for doing something we shouldn’t do.” That statement struck fear into my heart. I realized that in some cases, I have only shown up in people’s lives when they’re in trouble. I don’t like that. I want to be a faithful shepherd of the whole flock all the time. I’m convinced that the only way for pastors to avoid being rightfully charged with “only showing up when people are in trouble for sin” is to be consistently in their lives. It’s not enough for pastors to preach sermons, lead from a distance, and discipline wayward sheep. Pastors need to have church members into their homes and build real relationships and friendships with them. They have to make themselves vulnerable to the church and allow the church to have access to their families. They need to be available for conversations in the hallways after the services. They should visit the hospitals and in the homes of church members. They should be committed to conducting weddings and funerals, laying down their lives in ministry to God’s people. Pastors are called to speak of the Savior in every circumstance of life, not just when people are persisting in sin. Only when pastors shepherd the congregation in a full pastoral ministry can they avoid being rightly accused of “only showing up when people are in trouble,” and only when they shepherd the congregation with a full pastoral ministry are they actually shepherding God’s beloved sheep.