The Bible is clear in its teachings about what the church should do in the discipline of its members.
Church leaders and local bodies of believers can no more ignore the scriptural passages that instruct on the matter than they can ignore any other portions of the Bible. Paul's teaching on church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5 is as much the Word of God as John 3:16 or Acts 2:4. As Carl Laney says, "Church discipline is a biblical imperative. The church cannot neglect this imperative any more than it would willfully ignore Christ's commission to evangelize the nations." John Schaver says, "The true preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of discipline are the three marks of the true Church; and the third of these is essential to the other two."
In the practical application of these teachings, however, the leadership of a congregation must make sure the membership is fully informed on what the Bible says about discipline in the church. Then they must seek wisdom from heaven as to how and when to act upon scriptural principles. Finally, circumstances dictate that they fully take into account all legal aspects relating to such actions.
Church history reveals varying degrees of response to the teachings of the Bible on church discipline.
They range all the way from leniency with virtually no disciplinary action to extreme severity in carrying out biblical instructions. Schaver offers an example of the latter when he reports that some segments of the church came to view certain evils as mortal sins. He writes: "The punishment for these was excommunication, which deprived the erring member from the right of attending any church service, and from fellowship with the believers. Repentance shown by way of prayers, fastings, and almsdeeds was acknowledged, but the path to restoration was hard and long all the way from one to twenty years."
A further example of such extremes in church discipline comes from the third century. John McNeill reports that, by then, a fallen member had to move through four stages in being restored to fellowship with the church. The "mourners" stood outside the church door begging to be re-admitted. The "hearers" had a place just inside the church where they could listen to the sermon. The "kneelers" bowed shoulder to shoulder with the worshipers but engaged only in the kneeling part of the ritual. The "co-standers" had more liberties and yet still could not participate in communion. Only at length was one returned to the place of a full communicant. McNeill indicates that in some places the process could take as long as eleven years.
Congregations of other time periods followed biblical instructions on church discipline more closely.
Laney writes: "Church discipline, applied strictly according to biblical guidelines, is a rare occurrence these days. During earlier times church discipline was a regular part of church life. In Scotland, for instance, during the time of John Knox, church elders were expected to visit the homes of the parishioners and inquire whether there had been any quarrels; and any family members who had were to be reconciled before they received communion. Only those who had received metal tokens of fitness would be allowed to participate in the Lord's Table."
In recent years the writer has witnessed similar disciplinary strictness in churches of West Africa. Those on probation cannot participate in communion nor engage in any ministry to the congregation. They must sit on a bench at the rear of the sanctuary. One church painted it black with the word Discipline written conspicuously in red on it. Those occupying it must refuse to shake hands with any who offer, explaining they are not in full fellowship with the congregation.
Of course, neither church history nor current religious policies of a body of believers in any part of the world provide an authoritative guide on discipline. In the world of reality, to follow even the teachings of Scripture on the subject requires wisdom from above. It certainly is not something anyone should rush into apart from much study and prayerful preparation.
With appropriate words of caution, Jay Adams writes that successful discipline "presupposes the knowledge of a number of principles and practices relating to the intricacies in the interrelationships that develop in the process of discipline. Apart from such knowledge, the participating believer may fail to act as he should and, in the end, may do harm rather than good." He concludes that because of prevailing ignorance concerning the subject of church discipline, "Pastors and church leaders should regularly instruct their congregations in the full range of its principles and practices. This would work to help avoid needless injury."
Experience teaches that, to be effective, church discipline of necessity must be church-wide.
Emphasizing this, John White and Ken Blue say: "The commonest error is to suppose that authority figures administer discipline best. Awe of them will bring repentance and love of them good behavior. However, parents and school teachers are painfully aware that habits and characters are powerfully shaped by peer pressure. It is the censure of the community that brings repentance, and the plaudits of the community that stimulate exemplary behavior." When congregational leaders attempt it without the support of most of the people, they fail in their efforts and make bad matters worse.
Further, Lynn Buzzard and Thomas Brandon reason that church discipline must be viewed as more than just a procedure mandated by the constitution and by-laws of a congregation. It is a way of life. They write: "Discipline assumes mutual accountability. The whole church is always under discipline, including those who carry out discipline. Discipline is not an incident in which some rare bylaw is invoked, but a process of mutual care. Discipline is not even an act, but a style of submitting ourselves one to another, calling each other to what we ought to be, not letting each other alone."
In today's world, of course, the question of legal risks in practicing church discipline arises.
Richard Hammar, a noted attorney who specializes in church law, draws attention to the landmark United States Supreme Court case of Watson v. Jones in 1872, which established the "non-intervention" policy in matters of church discipline for the civil courts of America. Recognizing exceptions, he declares that many courts still follow the century-old rule "concluding that the discipline and dismissal of church members is exclusively a matter of ecclesiastical concern and thus the civil courts are without authority to review such determinations."
In dealing with some exceptions to the usual practice, Hammar points to the widely publicized case of Guinn v. Church of Christ of Collinsville in Oklahoma in 1989 as one that has brought the question of civil court intervention into matters of church discipline sharply into focus. In the litigations Mirian Guinn sued the church over its handling of her dismissal from membership in the congregation. She won a judgment of $390,000. The Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld the verdict though it ordered a new trial to reassess the amount of damages awarded. Jay Quine reports that the case was finally settled out of court.
Still, as Adams observes, "Even though discipline is difficult and runs many risks, churches dare not run the greater risk of withholding a privilege and blessing provided by Christ, thus depriving sinning members of all the help He has provided for them." Adams recommends that churches keep good records of all disciplinary procedures. He says, "In this time when people are suing the church for obeying God, it is especially important to be able to substantiate the fact that you have followed your procedures as they are laid down in your denominational book of discipline or in the bylaws of your congregation." These procedures must have been given to the member at the time of joining the church, and the member must have signed an agreement to live by them in submitting to the authority of the church.
Laney provides a helpful list of nine things a church should do to avoid lawsuits over its disciplinary actions.
The list elaborates on the suggestions of Adams. Buzzard and Brandon, both attorneys, offer detailed suggestions as to what a church practicing discipline can do in efforts to stay out of court. They even offer convenient "sample forms" for use in church discipline. Hammar presents a similar list with some of the most noteworthy written legal counsel available on church conduct in matters of discipline. No doubt the wisest course for the leaders of any congregation, however, is to seek professional legal advice from a competent attorney before they proceed with the discipline of any member. Even so, Buzzard and Brandon remind their readers that "the church's sensitive and biblically rooted practices will be more important than lawyers."
Still, the question is not whether a church should or should not include the practice of discipline among its ministries. Rather, it is a matter of determining how to offer that needed service to members scripturally, wisely, and legally.
Instead of leading to the death of a church, consistent discipline promotes a strong, healthy congregation. Dean Kelley's study revealed that lenient churches are dying while strict churches continue to grow, even in today's world. His research led him to depict a "model church." Among its several traits he declares that its "members would willingly and fully submit themselves to the discipline of the group, obeying the decisions of the leadership without cavil and accepting punishment for infractions without resentment, considering any sanctions preferable to being expelled."
Buzzard and Brandon conclude, "We rob people of their right to be forgiven when we fail to confront them. We need not think of church discipline as a necessary evil." They observe further, "We desperately need that church discipline to provide healing, release, and forgiveness to the burdened and trapped members of our own communities. Without it we consign people to the privacy of their guilt."
In conclusion, church leaders and local bodies of believers can no more ignore the passages of Scripture that instruct on discipline of members than they can disregard any other passages from the Bible.
In the practical application of these teachings, however, the leadership of a congregation must make sure the members are fully informed on what the Bible says about discipline in the church. Church history provides some lessons on the subject, including extremes that the local congregation must avoid. Though the Bible is clear in its teachings on a church's proper actions in the discipline of its members, congregational leaders must seek wisdom from heaven as to when and how to act upon scriptural principles. Finally, circumstances dictate that they fully take into account all legal aspects relating to such actions.
Adams, Jay E. Handbook of Church Discipline. Grand Rapids: Ministry Resources Library, 1986.
Buzzard, Lynn R., and Thomas S. Brandon. Church Discipline and the Courts. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1987.
Hammar, Richard R. Pastor, Church and Law. 2d ed. Matthews, N.C.: Christian Ministry Resources, 1991.
Kelley, Dean M. Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, new and updated ed. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977.
Laney, J. Carl. A Guide to Church Discipline. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1985.
McNeill, John T. A History of the Cure of Souls. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1951.
Palma, Anthony D. "Judgment . . . Condemnation." Advance, August 1977, 26.
Pethrus, Lewi. Christian Church Discipline. Chicago: Philadelphia Book Concern, 1945.
Quine, Jay A. "Court Involvement in Church Discipline." Biblio Theca Sacra 1 (April-June 1992): 223-36.
Schaver, John L. The Polity of the Churches. Vol. 1. Chicago: Church Polity Press, 1947.
White, John, and Ken Blue. Church Discipline That Heals. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1985.
About the Author
Dr. Charles Harris is a recently retired Professor of Bible and Pastoral Ministries as well as the Chairman of the Division of Church Ministries at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. He was associated with the college for thirty-eight years.
In addition to his duties as an educator, Dr. Harris is also an author. His writings have appeared in The Sunday School Counselor, God's Word for Today, and The Adult Teacher. Among his works are three books, What's Ahead, Proofs of Christianity, and Under the Glass: An Analysis of Church Structure, as well as a commentary on Second Corinthians in The Complete Biblical Library. He was a contributing author of Power Encounter, A Pentecostal Perspective.
Dr. Harris holds a bachelor's degree in Bible, a master's degree in counseling, and a doctorate in education.