November 16, 2016

Pastoral Malpractice

by Eric Davis

It’s no small thing. Incorrect medicine is prescribed. Cardiac conditions are misdiagnosed. Wrong limbs are amputated. One study estimated that medical errors take the lives of about 15,000 elderly patients per month.

Sadly, medicine is not the only field in which malpractice occurs. Biblically speaking, pastoral ministry is also a field in which negligence can happen. No pastor is above it.

But there is one form of pastoral malpractice that is particularly common and serious. The more pastors I speak with, the more I am alarmed at how common it is. It is the act of harboring professing Christians in unrepentant sin and church discipline. I suppose that we could phrase it more generally by saying, “The act of failing to shepherd biblically those in unrepentant sin.”

The situation often happens like this: a professing Christian has been plugged in to a local church. That individual then begins to drift and distance themselves a bit. Either through the individual’s confession or other providences, it is discovered that they are in unrepentant sin. Other regulars at the church come alongside the individual, ask questions, express their love, share the gospel, offer to walk with them, and attempt to help them cut off their right hand and throw it from them (cf. Matt. 5:30). After multiple attempts to restore them (cf. Matt. 18:15-17), the sinning individual is no longer present in the various church gatherings. Come to find out, they are attending another church across town. To make matters worse, the leadership of that church, though they know about the individual’s sin, will not contact the previous church in order to biblically care for them. They will not call to get more info lest they answer a matter before they hear (cf. Prov. 18:13). They will not send the individual back to his/her shepherds. They may give the individual assurance of salvation and see themselves as a place of healing. Though the individual’s leadership may inform them of the situation, they continue to harbor the disciplined.


Pastoral malpractice.

Assuming the individual has committed biblical sin, pastors who harbor those in church discipline commit spiritual malpractice. Here are a few reasons why (this assumes an understanding of the biblical process of church discipline):

  1. They elevate themselves over Christ and his word.

Performing the painful process of church discipline really comes down to humbling ourselves under the word of God. Are we going with our word or God’s? Will we simply love Christ and the individual by embracing the process in Matthew 18:15-17?

Similarly, observing and respecting the process of discipline in the life of another comes down to humbling ourselves under the word of God. At the risk of stating the obvious, every church who calls themselves a “church” of the Lord Jesus Christ is bound under the authority of the inerrant word. Biblical discipline in one church is to be observed in another since it is a matter of the authority of Christ exercised through his word. Local churches are not called to capriciously manufacture principles and practice. We are to all operate in obedience to Scripture. Therefore, when another church knowingly harbors the disciplined, they are elevating themselves over Christ and his word.

  1. They functionally remove themselves from under the headship and lordship of Jesus Christ.

bibletrashChrist is the head of the true church (cf. Eph. 1:22-23). All who are regenerate are saved into his body and under his headship and lordship. The way that a local church demonstrates that they are so is by the correct teaching and preaching of his word.

So, to abandon a critical command like discipline is to distance ourselves out from under Christ’s headship. Similarly, to refuse to observe the biblical discipline of an individual is to functionally remove ourselves from under his lordship. A church who will not observe the biblical discipline of another church can no more claim Jesus Christ as its head than an In-N-Out Burger restaurant can claim to be of the franchise who refuses to sell hamburgers.

  1. They counter God’s declaration of the disciplined individual.

The refusal to observe the discipline of an individual is far more than a difference of opinion on that individual. God himself works through church discipline to give his verdict on the individual.

For that reason, Christ concluded his commands regarding church discipline with, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). The idea there is that, when a NT church performs church discipline as commanded in Matthew 18:15-17, that church is affirming God’s declaration on the matter. The reason for this is because a church who obeys the word of God, obeys God. Thus, a church who knowingly harbors a disciplined individual counters God’s declaration of them.

  1. They cause division within Christ’s church.

When a sinning individual leaves his/her church in order to safely harbor in another, that leadership has a choice to make. Upon discovering his/her situation, it is best to approach that individual and say something like, “I am sorry that this is a difficult situation. I want to do what is most biblically loving for you. So, I am going to send you back to your previous church and call the leadership to let them know that we have spoken. It would not be loving for us to harbor you here. I will pray for you, that you will not flee from God’s care through your leadership. We can trust that God’s ways are best.”

A process like this demonstrates more than love for the individual and God. It shows God’s kind unity. How? It is a situation in which multiple local churches, through leadership, act in solidarity to God’s word, and, therefore, to God. In doing so, they act in unity with one another. When A and B unite with C, the result is that A and B are united with each other. That is the kind of unity which God desires.

  1. They give the unrepentant individual unwarranted assurance of salvation.

The process of church discipline presupposes a biblical view of regeneration. In other words, the process exists precisely because a Christian is saved unto holiness and fruit-bearing (cf. John 15:1-9). Church discipline exists for the purpose of demonstrating that the converted and unconverted are two different creatures, spiritually speaking (2 Cor. 5:17). It is a big deal when a Christian hardens their heart and persists in sin, hence the existence of the Matthew 18:15-17 process. The unrepentant individual is to be treated as if unregenerate (v. 17).

Consequently, when a disciplined individual is harbored, that church functions in contrary to a biblical understanding of salvation. In effect, they are saying, “Well, you may have been disciplined in that local church, but, we are going to throw that out and assure you that you are saved and going to heaven. We have a better idea of your soul than God and his word.” In doing so, that church could very well be a culprit in escorting the disciplined to hell. They will be accountable for such things in the judgment (cf. Ezek. 33:8, Acts 20:26).

  1. They communicate a skewed Christianity.

paste122Christ-likeness in a local church gives credence to the Christ professed. As members strive for holiness, and ask forgiveness for the lack thereof, “the opponent will be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us” (Titus 2:8). The salt remains salty and the light remains bright. By God’s grace, we maintain a witness with integrity.

But, what does it say to the watching world when they see us harbor unrepentant and disciplined individuals? And, what does it say to the friends and family of the sinning individual? And any individual with whom the disciplined is in sin?

We say loudly, “Sin is not a big deal.” “Christ does not really offer much power over sin.” “The death and resurrection of Christ are irrelevant.” Think of the confusion it causes lost friends and family members. One church maintains a biblical standard, holding the individual accountable to his/her profession of Christ, but the other does not. Think of the unnecessary, and additional, pain it causes. The unrepentant is given assurance of salvation. Friends and family grow more convinced that they do not need Christ. They deepen in resolve that Christ’s church is irrelevant.

Harboring the disciplined and unrepentant is a poor witness to the watching world.

  1. They ignore God’s commands for holiness in the church.

In his extraordinary kindness, God saves sinners. We receive forgiveness, justification, adoption, peace with God, and regeneration (cf. Col. 1:14, Rom. 5:1, Gal. 4:5, Titus 3:5). And, as if that were not enough, there is more.

Included in the salvation package for every believer is also sanctification. All who are justified will be sanctified (cf. John 15:1-9; Rom. 8:12-15, 29-30; Eph. 2:10; Titus 2:14; Heb. 12:14). By God’s grace, we are given salvation so that we would walk in the new life, dead to sin, and under grace so that sin is no longer our master (cf. Rom. 6:1-14). God saves for holiness unto himself (1 Pet. 1:14-16). He really is that powerful and loving.

However, when a church harbors the disciplined, they communicate something different about salvation. Sanctification is an optional add-on in the package. You can be saved without it. Holiness is up to the individual.

  1. They fail to love both the disciplined and the church.

The concept and practice of love is often misunderstood in contemporary Christianity. Love keeps with the commands of God, for the glory of God, with a heart of eternal good for an individual.

Jesus knew what he was doing when he prescribed the discipline process. If it was innately unloving, he would not have commanded it. But he did. Therefore, in the case of the unrepentant, it is the most loving thing to do.

A church may rationalize, “We are a loving, healing hospital for souls. That is why we harbor these individuals.” While that sounds nice, it is a misnomer. It’s malpractice in the same way that a hospital assuring a patient with a massive aortic aneurysm that they just need a massage and smelling oils, and can heal as they are comfortable, is malpractice.

In his 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 (221-2).


Often, churches who harbor the unrepentant have a common trait: they love to be known as loving. They enjoy praising themselves for being merciful. And that’s the problem. They love themselves and the false accolades they get from fleshly individuals who praise them for pandering them on their way to judgment. “Don’t make me uncomfortable, pastor, and I will continue to throw you a bone.” It’s a deadly cycle: a church is already man-centered. Unrepentant individuals hear that it is a joyful place of healing. They snuggle right in. The leadership fails to biblically care for them with discipline. The unrepentant feel cozy, thus applaud the leadership for the pillow fluffing and doctrinal lullabies. The unrepentant mesmerize them with “you-are-so-loving” flattery. The leadership gets a buzz from the applause, the numerical church growth, and feeling “used of God.” The process repeats and the cycle continues.

  1. They declare themselves a dangerous church, if a church at all.

Speaking of the church discipline process in Matthew 18:15-17 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Andrew Davis writes, “Only through faithful obedience to these passages can a local church truly be healthy and fully fruitful” (Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline, 159) and, “A church with no commitment to fight sin in its members is no church at all” (185).

In the Handbook of Church Discipline, Jay Adams writes that a church who 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” (103).

So, a church who will not honor church discipline on the individual declares themselves a dangerous church at best, and a no-church at worst.

On the flip side, what if a church receives an individual whom they believe was illegitimately disciplined? The leadership will need to carefully search out the matter. Was there biblically-defined sin? Did the previous church attempt to counsel and shepherd them? They will need to proceed carefully in concluding an illegitimate discipline.

Pastors, if we are going to call ourselves pastors, we must repent of harboring those in church discipline. I understand that it’s easier to let things slide under the radar. I’m often tempted to do so. I get that it’s more comfortable to keep flattering myself with, “I’m just being patient.” But perhaps our patience is pragmatic malpractice. I understand the fear that we will be wrongly, and, perhaps, perpetually, viewed as unloving. But, we have to ask ourselves: are we going to surrender to Christ’s lordship or our comfort? Do we want people’s approval or our Lord’s? We may quietly congratulate ourselves for functioning as a healing hospital for the hurt, but when we harbor the disciplined, we are anything but that. Instead, we are a hating harbor for the lost; we are First Church of the Tares. Knowingly harboring the unrepentant and the refusal to observe church discipline is a form of pastoral malpractice.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
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  • Hohn

    There’s much I appreciate about this article, but I had a few questions and I was hoping you could interact with me on them.

    1) My read of this is that your primary target zone is churches that either don’t practice church discipline themselves, or decline to inquire — or at times refuse even to interact at all — when they become aware of a church disciplined individual at their church. Is that a fair reading?

    2) The reason I ask is because having witnessed and counseled numerous church discipline cases across North America, it is a sadly common occurrence to see church discipline be performed very badly, and sometimes unbiblically and invalidly.

    I can think of one situation where a local gathering has disciplined out dozens of members for supposed factiousness, where the common thread is a private disagreement with the pastor. I can think of another where the disciplining church is actually the one that refuses to be accountable for its discipline or even interact with the churches that have inquired about disciplined people. And still another where the disciplining church refuses to provide a path or any guidance for repentance and restoration, even though the disciplined individual is very willing and responsive.

    And there are others, all cases where the leaders have spent many hours in prayer and attempts to reach out, and where the disciplined individuals have seemingly tender hearts, no apparent spirit of bitterness, and intense desire for reconciliation. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions in cases like these?

    3) More broadly, another danger I perceive among some independent Bible churches is a spirit of independence, it’s a rather common (and sometimes quite unfair) knock by some denominations. But if we’re really honest with ourselves, we see it sometimes in our circles, and need to be vigilant to guard against it.

    It’s that spirit of independence that can often lead to bad church discipline, and taken to an extreme, to arrogance, secrecy, lack of accountability, lack of entreatability, and abuse. And you can end up with situations like Diotrephes in 3 John, where leaders are kicking out people they disagree with or don’t like, or in a different context, situations where abuse that really needs to be reported to the police or otherwise escalated is instead handled entirely in-house, with disastrous results that we’ve seen from time-to-time in the headlines.

    I suppose my concern is that I would hate for churches who need to be fighting against that tendency to read your otherwise excellent article filled with good biblical principles, and go away feeling justified, which I cannot imagine would be your desire? I would actually be very interested to see you write something about bad, heavy-handed, or invalid church discipline, as I believe it would be edifying indeed!

    At the end of the day, every independent Bible church and its leaders will be accountable to the Lord, of course, but it can get a bit more complicated when you still have “horizontal” dealings with other believers and churches this side of glory. And just as an independent Bible church has a measure of discretion in its church discipline, so too does another independent Bible church have a measure of discretion in how it receives or declines to receive people from other churches.

    And, to your point, my prayer is that none would receive someone under church discipline lightly, but rather be striving for repentance on all sides wherever sin can be found, full reconciliation, and unity. Thanks very much for your perspective on this important matter.

    • Eric Davis

      Hi Hohn, thank you for your experienced insight and questions. I’ll attempt to answer a few things.

      First let me say that I could not speak to every situation since I do not know the details of each one.

      This post assumes: 1) The individual is in a biblically-defined sin. 2) Individuals have attempted steps 1 and 2, going lovingly and privately to the individual both to call them to repent and offer to walk with them through the process. 3) The individual has refused those attempts.

      To address your points:

      1) Yes, that is a fair reading of the post.

      2) You mentioned: “where the disciplining church refuses to provide a path or any guidance for repentance and restoration, even though the disciplined individual is very willing and responsive.” That is obviously a sad situation and a mishandling. Our desire is never to go to discipline. We only are to do so once we have attempted to meet w/ the individual, call them to repentance, AND provided a clear path for them to repent and walk in obedience, but they persist in unrepentance. A church who rushes to discipline w/o providing a clear path to putting off the sin has, in my opinion, not adequately attempted to shepherd the individual.

      Discipline is only to be pursued when the individual refuses to repent and be shepherded in the restoration process.

      3) You are right. We must be careful about pulling the discipline card out quickly on the grounds of disagreement w/ the pastor. Titus 3:10-11 speaks of discipline for factiousness, not disagreement w/ the pastor. We can have people in our flock who disagree w/ the pastor on an issue, but are members in good standing. It depends on the theological issue and the plurality of elders would need to slowly, prayerfully, humbly, and patiently: 1) discern if the member is attempting to form a faction around himself so as to lead others astray from sound doctrine and form a church within a church 2) also discern if the pastor is making a mountain out of a mole hill and 3) make attempts to shepherd both the pastor and the individual w/ the disagreement to live in humble unity as brothers in the local church (cf. Eph. 4:1-3).

      As you mentioned, abuse always needs to be reported to authorities. We, churches, need to respect the law in that way.

      And to your question about being heavy-handed, we have written a brief article about that here:

      Thanks Hohn. Appreciate your wisdom and insight. Would love to hear others chime in on this.

      • Karl Heitman

        //”…pulling the discipline card out quickly on the grounds of disagreement w/ the pastor.”//

        Wow. This must be happening in mostly big churches, where they can afford to loose people and still survive? This practice is not only obviously wrong; it would kill small churches. If I tried to “discipline” all who had a disagreement with me, I’d be the only one left! 😉

        • Eric Davis

          Agreed, thanks Karl.

  • Jason

    Most of these points deal with a congregation that ultimately refuses to call sin what it is. #9 basically covers those bases pretty well.

    I could also, however, see a case where the disciplined individual is repentant of their sin, but due to their history in their previous congregation is afraid they would be rejected if they asked for forgiveness, even if the character of the congregation is sound and the fear is entirely unwarranted.

    That seems like a case that needs to be focused on. Pastors of a congregation should do what they can to reconcile such an individual to their previous congregation, because ultimately doing anything less could be seen to imply that at least some level of condemnation the person is feeling is justified (contrary to Romans 8:1) and also because it leaves the individual feeling like parts of the church really are unforgiving when they are not.