Church discipline (Matt 18:15-20) is often messy, costly, and accompanied by damage. The pain experienced is typically unmatched when a professing believer must be publicly put out of the local church.
Even so, when practiced biblically, it is consistent with biblical love, care, and obedience to Christ. Mark Dever rightly says that church discipline is “a loving, provocative, attractive, distinct, respectful, gracious act of obedience and mercy, and that it helps to build a church that brings glory to God.” Along those lines, a friend of mine was biblically disciplined out of a large church and to this day he confesses that it was one of the best things that ever happened to him. But more importantly, it’s a matter of non-negotiable in God’s kind of church.
Now, the existence of church discipline in a church does not mean that church is a biblical church. It’s a process that is sometimes abused. However, a refusal to practice it is a certain red flag. It’s one thing if a church leadership has not been practicing church discipline and is attempting to implement it. But it’s quite another thing if a church refuses to practice it. That refusal is symptomatic of other problems, making it an unsafe church.
Here are 10 perils common among churches that will not practice church discipline on you:
1. A dangerous approach to God and his word.
God commands the sacred practice of church discipline. In addition to Christ’s clear command in Matthew 18:15-20, it shows up in passages like Romans 16:17-18, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, Galatians 6:1-3, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15, and Titus 3:9-11.
There is no distinction between how we approach God and how we approach his word. Attitude towards the latter is a barometer for attitude towards the former (Ps 119:48, 138:2). Consequently, the issue of a church refusing to practice church discipline is much more than an issue of a church refusing to practice church discipline. There are deeper problems, for example, pertaining to the sufficiency of Scripture, God’s authority vs. man’s, and God’s wisdom vs. man’s. And that problem will not be isolated in a church anymore than an apple tree sick in its roots will only produce one bad apple.
2. An erroneous view of regeneration.
A church that spurns church discipline may have a diluted understanding of the miracle of regeneration. How so? Church discipline, in part, is for the purpose of demonstrating that the converted and unconverted are two entirely different creatures, spiritually speaking (2 Cor 5:17). When it’s practiced, both repentance and the tragedy of discipline demonstrate what it means to be “in Christ.”
For example, when we repent in response to step one (Matt 18:15), our regenerate condition is on display because there is no way we could have such a response unless we are in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. When someone is disciplined, that actual distinction between regenerate and unregenerate is also on display. Granted, a disciplined individual may be regenerate, but they are to be treated as if not because they are blatantly acting as if not. So, practicing church discipline is a prescribed way to showcase the radical miracle of regeneration by faith in Christ, which means refusal to discipline propagates an erroneous understanding of what it means to be converted.
That is unsafe because we risk being given false assurance as to our salvation. And maintaining the biblical distinction between the converted and unconverted is not to keep people out of heaven, but bring them in. Bucking church discipline can muddy the waters here.
3. A low view of sanctification.
Similarly, a refusal to practice church discipline demonstrates a de-emphasis on sanctification. If sin is not going to be confronted, then sin is not a big deal, which means Christ-likeness is not a big deal, which means sanctification is not a big deal, which means souls and eternity are not a big deal. Again, the issue is not isolated. If church discipline is less important then, despite credal affirmation, so is walking by the Spirit, personal holiness, and bearing fruit. And, as in #2, the danger here could also be false assurance for the unconverted.
4. A lack of love to both the church and the unconverted.
In his excellent book, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love, Jonathan Leeman writes:
Church discipline…is a clear implication of God-centered gospel love. It’s an inevitable and loving tool in a world where Christ’s kingdom has been inaugurated but not consummated. If God’s love was centered on man, then discipline would be cruel, and to those who remain convinced of Satan’s God-toppling lie (Gen 3:5), it will always sound that way. Yet for the holiness-seeking church, church discipline is the refusal to call the unholy “holy.” It’s a way of removing an affirmation so that self-deception no longer reigns. In radical defiance of the wisdom of this world, it helps to clarify exactly what love is (pp. 221-2).
Which means the accusation that church discipline is unloving needs rethinking. It may be done unlovingly, but church discipline itself is not unloving. Discipline is an expression of God’s secure, fatherly, unchanging love on his people to further christlikeness (Heb 12:7-11). Moreover, Paul calls the Corinthian church “arrogant” (1 Cor 5:2) for refusing to practice church discipline. I wonder how often we have used the term “arrogant” in such a way. So this means that refusal to lovingly confront sin, even to the point of church discipline, is arrogant and unloving.
Furthermore, church discipline is a means of grace to help the unconverted, but professing, see their perilous state. In such a case, refusing church discipline would be hateful.
5. Inadequate shepherding and soul-care.
Sheep and shepherding are the predominant metaphors for people and church care, respectively. Sheep need boundaries, oversight, and belonging. That’s what a sheep-fold with a shepherd provides. The door for safe entrance, the fence for safe boundaries, and the shepherd to guide—they all provide the care necessary for the sheep.
Church discipline exists, then, because of who sheep are, what they need, and how much God loves them. But a church who refuses to practice it likens itself to a doorless, fenceless sheepfold, with apathetic shepherds. In ancient times, such a thing would not be considered a sheep-fold, though sheep subjected to such treatment would be considered abused.
A church that will not discipline professing believers is inadequately shepherding souls. It shows a dangerously truncated view of individuals. It’s tunnel-vision shepherding: seeing souls in terms of this life only. They forget that without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Care is wrongly defined in terms of how we make people feel at any given moment. For that reason, its a significant shepherding failure.
Jay Adams puts it this way
The failure to discipline church members amounts to withholding from them the privilege of being confronted by others, and by the church, when they err in doctrine or life. Christ granted them this right; we have no right to withhold it from them (A Theology of Christian Counseling, p. 286).
And on a personal note, I praise God for men around me who love me enough to not withhold my right to church discipline. It’s a sobering grace knowing that if I stray, for example, in my marriage or in doctrine, I have brothers who love me enough to shepherd me all the way out of the church if necessary.
6. A shallow approach to biblical community.
In part, biblical community looks like converted individuals practicing the one anothers in committed, consistent, and candid relationships in the local church. But where church discipline is refused, life “in Christ” is de-emphasized, which means christlikeness and sanctification are de-emphasized, with the result that biblical community will become shallow. Those great hallmarks of love, confessing and confronting each other’s sins as a family under grace, will thereby be absent, which atrophies genuine biblical community (Prov 27:5-6, Heb 3:12-14). The local church then becomes more about living life at a safe, calculated distance from one another. And without the means of grace of exhorting one another, its possible we are being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and may end not having been genuinely converted.
7. A low importance of the witness of the local church to the world.
The godliness of a local church is what makes them salty salt and bright light to their respective community. Holiness among church members adorns the gospel they preach (Titus 2:10). But when church discipline is omitted from that church, there is that absence of care for sanctification in the church’s DNA. The inevitable result is a lack of witness to the world.
8. A lack of love to those against whom the offender is sinning.
In a church discipline situation, there are always others, such as a wife, kids, or coworkers, pulled into the carnage by the offender. This means that when a church will not discipline, the offender is not the only one they fail to love. For example, if a church will not discipline a husband in unrepentant adultery, the wife is not given that clarity of God’s pronouncement on him. The mess remains in confusing ambiguity because the church will not bring finality through discipline. The result is that the spouse, and even kids, church members and relatives, are left in unnecessary confusion (which can also be a poor witness). It need not be, however. Church discipline is that heavenly-sanctioned, definitive statement made through leadership to bring peace in the hurt.
9. A shallow view on relational reconciliation.
Church discipline has reconciliation as its goal. The hope is always repentance, so as to win our brother (Matt 18:15). But real reconciliation is never found along the road of ignoring sin. Quite the contrary. For this reason, refusal to have discipline in church practice demonstrates an inadequate view of relational reconciliation.
But the church where discipline is correctly practiced is the one in which the biblical one anothers are already in fluid motion. Biblical relationships are being attempted which means reconciliation is happening because this side of heaven, there is no such thing as a relationship without the need of dealing with sin. This is the church where it’s weird to not get lovingly spoken to about sin. It’s a place where sin is confessed. It’s a place where, almost paradoxically, sin is safe but unsafe. Interpersonal issues are not swept under rugs, but confessed and repented of, so that reconciliation can occur.
10. A refusal to define itself as a New Testament church.
Jay Adams rightly says that a church that refuses to practice church discipline is a “no church since they will not draw a line between the world and the church by exercising discipline” (Handbook of Church Discipline, p. 103).
That may seem like a strong statement. But, again, a church’s refusal to discipline is symptomatic of other hazards in that house of God: a selective approach to Scripture, a supplanting God’s wisdom with man’s, a potentially dangerous view of salvation and sanctification, a lack of love, inadequate leadership in the church, a worldly view of life in Christ together, a low view on the importance of witness, and a cheap view of reconciliation.
Those are reasons enough to avoid a church that will not discipline you. So, think carefully before jumping in where you won’t get booted out. God’s best for his people is a local church safe enough to get disciplined out of.