Healthy churches are careful with their membership. They strive to ensure members don’t just know the gospel but have a proven track-record of living according to the gospel (James 2:19). Furthermore, sound churches lovingly but firmly confront members caught in open sin. When a member refuses to respond in repentance and faith, a congregation will eventually have no alternative but to remove this person from membership as a matter of what is typically called church discipline, or excommunication (see Matthew 18:15–20; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2:5–11; 13:1–4; 2 Thessalonians 3:13–15; Titus 3:10).
A few years ago, a member of our church was caught stealing money. He said he was sorry, but his actions proved otherwise. He displayed no godly grief (2 Corinthians 7:10), he refused to heed wise counsel (Proverbs 11:14), and he ceased communication with anyone who would challenge him. This eventually left the church with no other option but to remove him from membership as a matter of church discipline. Sadly, after months of pleading and not a few tears (he’d been a beloved member of the body), we could no longer affirm that he was a Christian. We excommunicated him. This doesn’t happen often at our church, but it does happen.
Such practice is all too rare in churches today. Naysayers argue it’s not very loving. They suggest all conflict should be handled privately, avoiding the possibility of any public embarrassment. Moreover, they insist churches should be about the business of preaching the gospel instead of worrying about the details of an individual Christian’s life.
But church discipline and the Great Commission can’t be separated, and here are several reasons why:
Churches that practice church discipline obey the Great Commission.
Consider the actual words of the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (emphasis added). Because Jesus commanded his disciples to practice church discipline (Matthew 18:15–20), our obedience to this instruction is essential to Great Commission faithfulness.
Admittedly, practicing church discipline to the point of excommunication is hard. Churches can certainly make mistakes in how they obey this command, but obey we must. Thankfully, Jesus is our wise and loving Lord. We can trust He knows what is best for the church.
Exercising church discipline may cut against the grain of our anti-authoritarian, live-and-let-live culture. But remember, we can’t be Great Commission churches without teaching God’s people to obey everything Jesus commanded.
Churches that practice church discipline evangelize their own people.
It’s amazing how many passages in the New Testament urge people who profess faith in Christ to be sure their profession is genuine (Matthew 7:21; 16:24–28; 25:31–36; 2 Corinthians 6:1; 13:5; Hebrews 3:12–14; 6:1–8; James 2:14–26). Because sin is mischievous, we are always to be on guard. Such self-inspection doesn’t demonstrate a lack of faith; it simply proves the reality that sin is powerful and dangerous. The Christian, as Paul said, is to “take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
Sometimes sin gets the upper hand. A believer may fall into a sin pattern that calls into question the authenticity of his or her conversion. It could be a husband leaving his marriage with no biblical grounds. It may be a sister sowing seeds of discord throughout the church. Whatever the ongoing sin may be, when it becomes public it should be addressed. This person needs a fresh encounter with the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ.
What hope does such a person have? How does God call the church to react when this person is no longer living as a Christian? God’s answer is church discipline. He calls upon the church to evangelize its own members by removing them from the membership of the body if they refuse to repent (Mark 1:15).
But removal from membership is not the end goal. Not at all! God calls the church to discipline “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5, emphasis added). Church discipline is evangelistic!
The purpose of church discipline is restorative. The goal is to see a person recommit himself to Christ in word and in deed. Church discipline may be painful, but it’s done with the hope of redemption and reconciliation. In that sense, church discipline is a Good News ministry. Church discipline is the most loving and the most evangelistic action a church can take when a member persists in public, unrepentant sin.
Churches that practice church discipline are modeling the gospel.
By and large, families with well-disciplined children are attractive. But if the kids are unruly and disagreeable, it can be hard to find a babysitter. I remember an old Dennis the Menace episode where Dennis’s parents couldn’t find anyone who actually knew the family to watch their son. His reputation was that bad.
The same is true for a church family. Congregations filled with unruly members are not attractive to an unbelieving world. They have a bad reputation in their community. How often have you heard someone say, “I don’t want to attend a church—they’re full of hypocrites”?
Before I was a Christian, I attended a baccalaureate service at my high school—a religious program to honor graduates. Several students gave speeches testifying to their relationship with Christ. I knew a couple of these boys from the bus and the cafeteria. Suffice it to say, their lives did not commend the gospel. Their witness made me wonder if Christians were any different than the world. Thankfully, God kept working on my own heart; he revealed my own self-righteousness and my need for a Savior. A few months later I came to saving faith. But the example of my “Christian” classmates did not help.
For the sake of our witness to an unbelieving world, churches ought to do more than preach the gospel. We must model its implications. At times this means putting out of membership those who refuse to walk in a manner pleasing to the Lord (Colossians 1:10). There is no perfect church, but if we want our gospel words to have any traction with our non-Christian neighbors, let’s labor to see our churches filled with gospel fruit (Galatians 5:22–23).
There is something wonderful and appealing—even to unbelievers—about a congregation marked by love and peace and holiness. In fact, Jesus said the love believers share is a visible testimony to the reality of Christ (John 13:35). Faithfulness demands we do all we can to live worthy of the gospel we preach. Church discipline is an important part of this biblical equation.
Churches indistinct from the world having nothing to offer. Passersby will have no interest in a church full of people whose lives are as carnal as their own. Do you want to tarnish your witness in the community? Then refuse to practice church discipline.
We practice church discipline out of obedience to the Great Commission. Jesus commanded it. Therefore, to be a Great Commission believer, we need to heed His call. We practice church discipline out of love for our own members. There are times when believers fall into a public sin they won’t give up. Church discipline is a form of evangelism that points members afresh to the saving power of the cross. Finally, we practice church discipline out of love for our neighbors. We want them to understand that the gospel really does change lives. Jesus doesn’t just tell us to believe, He leads us to repent.