Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Grace and Church Discipline

As I listen to pastors and church leaders, I hear (or don't hear) a few things that continue to concern me deeply in relation to the topic of church discipline. Things like, "I always want to err on the side of grace." Well who doesn't? But what does this mean? Or, "We don't do church discipline because only legalistic churches do this." Or, "What do I do about this problem situation (often a person sinning) that is dividing my church?" - when actually church discipline would stop the problem. Or, more commonly I just hear nothing on the topic. I guess discipline has been replaced by people-pleasing.

On the other side, I am also concerned about some who seem to "discover" church discipline, and end up becoming so narrow that suddenly a huge group of people in the church are put under discipline without appropriate biblical instruction. If discipline has been neglected in a church ( and in many cases it has been), careful instruction and patience must be given in implementing biblical teaching on discipline. Sometimes, rather than rushing to discipline, a pastor may need to realize he has inherited a flock of goats instead of a flock of sheep. The answer to this will be the consistent preaching of the Gospel through expository preaching before one starts the disciplinary process. The Word of God and the Spirit of God will sort out the goats until you can see what you are truly dealing with.

The Brethren movement has as its main historic distinctive the loving exercise of church discipline. As I have stated in Childlike Faith (p.30; <>), "page after page in (Alexander) Mack's writing, and in writings over the the next century and more after him, make allusions to Matthew chapter 18 as the description of Jesus' teaching concerning living in spiritual community with mutual accountability to one another in church discipline." The establishment of "mutual accountability" will need to precede the implementation of a formal or official disciplinary process.

A book that was helpful to me years ago was Disciplined by Grace by J.R. Strombeck (Strombeck Agency, 2nd ed. 1947). Even the title should suggest that grace and discipline go together. We are not operating in grace when we overlook or even give tacit approval of ongoing sin in the life of a professed brother/sister in Christ by our unloving silence. Neither are we operating in grace when we become harsh, legalistic, or self-serving (i.e. "win-lose" attitudes instead of "win-win").

Quite often disciplinary experiences do not end up the way we desire. Our desire is for forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus predicted that sometimes the final step will be to "let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Matt.18:17). Even then the door should be left open for future forgiveness (Matt.18:21ff.). But we must not allow the realities that church discipline can be difficult, is sometimes very uncomfortable, and often does not end up as we desire, to prevent us from doing it the way Jesus taught us. What is at stake if we do not? - marriages, families, personal testimonies, evangelism, truth, the church herself.

Of course we must do this in grace and love. But in these days of apostasy and pseudo-tolerance, the greater danger is that we may not be doing it at all.


  1. wasn't it matthew 18 that mack and the others read before going into the eider river?

    my, how far we've gone from there.

  2. Actually it was Luke 14:25-33 which focuses on counting the cost of discipleship (see Childlike Faith, p.29). But your point is still right on target. We've gone a long way in not a good direction, at least on these issues.

  3. I appreciate the struggle you've pointed out between grace and discipline. I agree with you that the two must go together. My continuing point of irritation is that many churches that do practice "discipline," seem to apply it only in instances of external behaviors. Considering that the Scriptures talk much about, let's say, pride, I see no gentle confrontation there. Maybe it's because many in the professional ministry would be out of a job? Sorry, couldn't resist that one. Seriously, it seems to me conditions of the heart are the more insidious sins (pride, envy, lust for power,etc), but we don't seem to confront them at all. I think when we do acknowledge them in our own life, we tend to be more "gracious" toward others. ? Also, you do speak of expository preaching quite often. While I tend to prefer that,and have read many good reasons for it, I don't see a biblical mandate for it. Thoughts? Thanks! - mtb

  4. Perhaps the reason the internal things are not confronted as often as the external is simply that they are internal. It is difficult, often impossible, to assess the inward until it manifests itself outwardly. How do you measure whether someone else is envying, or being lustful, or being prideful? We can't until the inward is manifested outwardly by words, looks, or actions.

    Agreeing with you that the internals should be confronted, how do we do this when we cannot see them or assess them? This is why I include the exposition of the Word as a component of discipline. Through exposure to the Word of God, the thoughts and intents of the heart are discerned (Heb.4:12). Sometimes they are even exposed by one's offense at the message preached.

    As an aside, shepherds are not "professionals";-).

    I'll have some future posts coming on expository preaching. For now, let me just answer your question by saying that I feel that expository preaching is adequately mandated by 2 Timothy 4:2 - "Preach the Word!". Even if topical messages are preached on occasion, rather than the sequential preaching through Bible books, the topical messages should be the exposition of the text. Other than the Word of God, the preacher should not have anything else to preach.